Uncharted Cinema #7: Eyes of Laura Mars

eyeslauramarsIrvin Kershner, USA, 1978, 104 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I heard this was a great thriller. There is a lot of talent behind and in front of the camera, and the plot sounds great. Looking forward to it!

After: The opening shot of Eyes of Laura Mars is the POV of a murderer. It’s reminiscent of the opening shot of Halloween (released less than 3 months later), which makes sense because this one is also written by John Carpenter. But instead of revealing the murdered immediately, this time the mystery of who the murderer is takes up most of the film.

Faye Dunaway plays the titular character: an infamous photographer whose new exhibition or bold, erotic and violent imagery is turning people’s heads. The exhibition may also have gotten the attention of a psychopath who begins murdering people around her. The twist is that whenever the killer is about to strike, Laura can see through his eyes.

Put on the case to catch the killer is the unbelieving detective John Neville (not that John Neville), played by a very young Tommy Lee Jones. As more and more people are killed, both Mars and Neville find it harder and harder to explain the phenomena.

It all builds to a revealing ending that will be oddly satisfying to some and incredibly stupid to others. But the film is more about the journey than the payoff. 

The cast is solid and filled with great performances by some people we don’t see enough of. Rene Auberjonois is flamboyantly good as Laura Mars’ friend and manager. Raul Julia plays her sleazy ex-husband, and Brad Dourif is her personal driver with a checkered past.

The screenplay has enough to keep it interesting, but the real draw is the solid direction by Irvin Kershner. He knows how to make a film in nearly any genre, and Carpenter’s script gives him room to stretch creatively. There are some thrilling set-pieces here.

This film is a product of the seventies for sure: a sleazy, lurid but cleave script with subject matter that studios would shy away from today. A competent director getting the chance to spread his wings. And of course an ending that will leave everyone talking.

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Uncharted Cinema #6: Streets

streetsKatt Shea, USA, 1990, 85 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I heard about this one in passing and always had it on my long list of films to watch. I’m hoping for a gritty, sleazy Verhoeven/Scorcese type film. Looking forward to it.

After: Streets tells the story of a young prostitute Dawn (Christina Applegate), who is on the run from a crooked cop. While escaping, she crosses paths with semi-runaway Si (David Mendenhall), another teenager. They stay together for a bit and grow closer to one another as the cop (Eb Lottimer) continues to track them down.

Lumley isn’t just any crooked cop. He’s a serial killer who has been murdering young girls. Dawn was supposed to be his next victim but she got away. Now he’s after her because she’s seen his face and can identify him.

I’ll be brutally honest. The script isn’t great, the direction is a bit heavy-handed, and the acting is… noticeable. But it’s filmed with so much spirit and earnestness that it becomes something unique and special.

Too many films feel like they don’t invest in what’s going on. Like they are made to profit from a formula or a genre or a trend. Streets does have a formula, that is painfully clear, but the film wears its heart of its sleeve as well. It is a case of not how it was made, but why it was made.

I know that I may not understand the intentions of writer/director Kat Shea. (The film was co-written by her ex-partner Andy Ruben). But the story shown on the screen clearly cares about its characters and the world they inhabit.

Throughout their journey Dawn and Sy meet up with various California street-dwellers. Patrick Richwood puts in a good performance as Bob, the friendly but off-kilter drug dealer. And everyone else they run into feels like they were pulled right off of the streets of California.

Unfortunately, everyone they run into has to deal with the vengeful cop, who is inching close to Dawn as the day progresses. It’s standard thriller material, but that’s not to say there aren’t some good things here besides the sentiment.

For example, there is a riveting chase scene where the cop, on his motorcycle, has caught up to Sy, on his bicycle. It’s very effective with some real tension. And I think it’s pretty obvious that James Cameron watched that scene and was heavily inspired for some scenes in Terminator 2, like the motorcycle chase and the unstoppable cop idea.

Another example is the unique dream-like artistic touches. The monologues for example, especially right before the death scenes of some of the characters. They were strangely affecting, maybe because of what I wrote above, that they seemed based on real people pulled right off of the streets.

The film builds to a nice moody climax and then a denouement that is perfectly melodramatic. It felt like I had been on a journey with these characters, and that I shared in an intense and noteworthy part of their lives, and that part was coming to end.

Streets is a strange bird. There is a lot lacking in the film but it feels like so much more is there when you watch it. The passion to make something special and meaningful can be seen in every frame, and the spirit to do something different can be seen in flashes of great film-making. It’s one of those rare films that captured something special due to a strange alchemy of  story, character, time, place, and tone. It won’t ever be able to be reproduced.

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Uncharted Cinema #5: Four of the Apocalypse

four-of-the-apocalypse-01Lucio Fulci, Italy, 1975, 87 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I haven’t heard of this film, but I’m not really a fan of Lucio Fulci. His movies seem like they are only notable because they were riding the genre trends of Italian Cinema. I don’t think he’s a particularly good director, but maybe this one, a western, will reveal his talents.

After: Nope! This is poorly made on nearly every level. The film opens on Stubby Preston, a professional gambler played by Fabio Testi. He arrives at a small town to try to make some money, but instead was intercepted by the sheriff and thrown in jail. Whilst there, he meets the other three main characters: young pregnant prostitute Bunny (Lynne Frederick), drunk Clem (Michael J. Pollard), and a black undertaker named Bud (Harry Baird).

The town seems to be under martial law. Or something. It’s unclear what is actually happening. Eventually, after a town-wide gunfight, the sheriff lets our four heroes escape in a wagon. They decide to travel together to Silver Springs, a town filled with opportunity.

Along the way, they encounter a caravan of Christ-loving families, bandits, and the worst cliché Mexican ever: Chaco (played by obviously non-mexican Tomas Milian). Chaco is a great shot with his many guns, and eventually he turns against our heroes, robs them, rapes the girl, and leaves them for dead. Sort of. He left them all tied up in the middle of the desert. Except for Clem, who unties everyone.

The rest of the film concerns their journey back to civilization, Stubby and Bunny’s burgeoning relationship, and Stubby’s ultimate goal of getting revenge against the scheming Chaco.

The film has some nice scenery and production values. And there are some WTF moments, like Chaco spitting whiskey into the mouth of a high-on-peyote Clem. But that is where my compliments end.  The camera work is absolutely horrible. It isn’t helped by the editing. The transitions from event to event are confusing at best.

And Chaco, man! Chaco is just… terrible. I mean, look at his picture above! He looks like something out of an offensive sketch comedy show. He is played with gusto by Milian. I’m not sure if that was a good idea or bad.

I haven’t even talked about the best (worst) part! There is terrible seventies folk-rock that is played over all the montages, and the lyrics are narrating what is happening on screen. It is laughably bad.

The films feels like it was churned out to ride the wave of westerns being released at the time, and is interesting probably only to those exploitation-completists out there. But for those looking for a good spaghetti western, steer clear of this one. 

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Uncharted Cinema #4: What We Do in the Shadows

wwditsTaika Waititi and Jermaine Clement, New Zealand, 2014, 86 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I had wanted to see this but missed it. I’m glad I get the opportunity now. I expect it to be light, funny and clever. I don’t know what else to expect besides an amusing but forgettable time.

After: What we Do in the Shadows is the latest comedic take on the vampire genre. This one is played as a mockumentary following a quartet of vampires living together in a flat in New Zealand.

A lot of the humor comes from the the different spins the filmmakers put on the typical problems that all mortal roommates have. Those problems are compounded by the fact that the roommates are all from very different eras, and have very different needs.

The main subject of the documentary is Viago (writer/director Taika Waititi), a british dandy from the 1800’s. Jermaine Clement (the other writer/director) plays Vladislav, a sort of Vlad the impaler dark-ages type vampire. Jonny Brugh is Deacon, the young brash vampire from the turn of the century, and Petyr (Ben Fransham) is the old nosfertu who lives in the basement and has been around for thousands of years.

We are introduced to their day to day and a bit of the modern vampire culture that the movie creates. It’s funny, and clever, and there are some great sequences. Eventually, things take a turn when a new vampire, and his mortal friend, are introduced into the mix.

The whole thing satirizes the points of the modern vampire trend pretty well, but you could argue that there isn’t enough meat here to warrant a feature. That being said, everyone was game to make it work. The production values are really good, and the filmmakers wringed every drop of comedy out of the simple premise that they possible could. The result is smart, amusing and definitely fun.

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Uncharted Cinema #3: The Great Magician

greatmagicianTung-Shing Yee, Hong Kong, 2011, 128 min.

Read about the Uncharted Cinema Project here.

Before: I picture this one being very similar to the Detective Dee films. A CGI martial arts mystery/action/drama. I’m not a huge fan of those films. they have too much CGI, claustrophobic cinematography, and messy scripts. Maybe this one will be better!

After: Well, it turns out The Great Magician is very similar to the Detective Dee series. If you liked those, you would like this. And the inverse, in my case, is also true. I found it strange how similar they were because, as far as I could tell, the films don’t share any creative talent. Maybe movies like this are just the style of popular cinema produced in the Hollywood of China and Hong Kong? (Often referred to as Chinawood. No, I’m not making this stuff up, folks!)

Whatever the case, one must, as always, attempt to judge a film on its own merits before comparing it to others. This one is about a time in China when the country is on the brink of change. Warlords hold power, a people’s revolution has just been squashed, and foreign powers are vying for a foothold into the nation.

At the center of all this stands Bully Lei (Ching Wan Lau), one of the Warlords central to the conflict. But he is more concerned with gaining the love of Yin (Xun Zhou), who he wants to make his seventh wife. The first six of whom add some comic relief to the film.

Coming into the picture late is the titular magician, Chang Hsien (Tony Leung). His skill and renown in magic are unparalleled, but what is his true motivation? We soon come to realize that he is the ex-fiance of Yin, as well a student of the revolution who wants to use his magic skills to kidnap Bully Lei. The tension between Bully, Chang, and Yin is what drives the film.

Unfortunately, there is so much more going on than just that, and the film drowns in sub-plots and extraneous dialog. The craft of the film making isn’t enough to save it. There is far too much CGI, both in the magic, the martial arts, and the period sets and action sequences. The cinematography is odd and muddy. It felt almost like I was watching a video game be played instead of watching a film.

The acting all around is fine, as well as some of the old-fashioned slapstick comedy. If the film concentrated more on the parts that worked, instead of putting in everything but the kitchen sink, then it would have been much better. As it is now, the film is a dreary mess with some fun things trying to peak through. Unfortunately, they were snuffed out before I had a chance to enjoy them.

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