Saturday, April 21, 2012

Movie Reviews- Burke and Hare, Little Deaths, The Phantom of the Paradise

Burke and Hare
Leave it to John Landis to make an accessible and somewhat humorous comedy about an infamous pair of 19th century body-snatchers, who upon finding that the demand for fresh cadavers, exceeds the available supply, decide to meet that demand by murdering people.
Burke (Simon Pegg) and Hare (Andy Serkis) are the down on their luck Irishmen, who have immigrated to Edinburgh, Scotland to seek their fortune. As they aren't very good at swindles and confidence games they are excited (well Hare is, Burke mostly wrings his hands and goes along) to find that they can make a living by supplying Dr. Knox (Tom Wilkinson) with bodies needed for dissection and medical experiments. Knox doesn't ask questions about where the gruesome twosome get the bodies from. Knox views some things as required for the greater good. Both lead actors are extremely well cast here. Serkis just has a disreputable smirking goatish look about him which he uses to great effect in this movie. Pegg can look simple minded and guileless, which he often does here. 

Hare has not a shred of compunction about at first finding dead bodies to sell, later "helping along" elderly/sick people to meet their maker a bit quicker than they otherwise would have and finally just murdering people whom he hopes won't be missed. As mentioned Burke has some problems with this but times are tough and he gets with the program. Burke has fallen in love with a local actress/prostitute named Ginny Hawkins (Isla Fisher). He intends to bankroll her distaff production of Macbeth, as much for hopes of the obvious reward as any love of theater. Hare has no need to pay for feminine companionship as his crafty practical minded wife Lucky (Jessica Hynes) is just as lusty as he is. She also figures out very quickly what her husband and his friend are up to and finds ways to help.

Dr. Knox has to turn to the disreputable duo for his needs since his bitter rival Dr. Monroe (Tim Curry) has locked up the available supply of cadavers and made alternate means of supply illegal. Monroe and Knox are engaged in a battle for the King's patronage. Dr. Knox means to map the human body , for which he obviously needs a constant supply of fresh bodies. 
This was based on a true story and runs out of steam a little near the ending. It is a black comedy, so if you can't imagine being sympathetic to or interested in two lovable rogues who do murder for money and feel bad about it (well one of them feels bad about it) let this one go. Costumes and lighting are great and accents weren't too bad. I only had the subtitles on once or twice.
Hammer Icon and horror film legend Christopher Lee (probably best known to modern audiences as Saruman in The Lord of The Rings) has a brief cameo.This movie doesn't have any good guys. Narration is occasionally provided by the Angus the Hangman (Bill Bailey) who, as you might expect, has a rather cynical outlook on life. The ending gives a shoutout to what else, Animal House.
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Phantom of the Paradise
This was one of Brian DePalma's earlier movies and shows a lot of the distinctive stylings that he would continue to be use throughout his career. It is also my favorite "cult" movie of all time. I was inspired to watch it again and write about it because the lead actor in the film, William Finley, just passed away. 
Phantom of the Paradise (PoP) works in the same genre as The Rocky Horror Picture Show, came out in the same time period and has more than few similarities. PoP is a mashup of The Phantom of The Opera, Faust, The Picture of Dorian Grey as well as a satire of the early seventies rock music scene, particularly Led Zeppelin and KISS. The thieving bad guy is named Swan (Led Zeppelin ran Swan Song records) and has a right hand man that is a dead ringer for Led Zeppelin's notoriously thuggish manager Peter Grant.
The final third and ending of this film is pretty bad and the special effects are sometimes almost deliberately pedestrian but that's not why I like this movie. This movie is great because it takes themes from the classic mentioned above and updates them in a rather inventive manner. Much like Don McLean's American Pie, PoP chronicles the fall (?) of rock and roll from love struck doo-woppers or innocent singer-songwriters to seventies stars who compete to be as decadent as possible and are only concerned about the next high or sexual coupling. The movie also is a (doomed) love story and a satire of the music industry.
Winslow Leach (William Finley), (his name is an inside joke at Cary Grant :Leach was Grant's real name but Winslow is not smooth, suave or good looking), is a painfully shy and somewhat naive pianist-singer-songwriter who is trying to get a record deal with Swan (Paul Williams-who also wrote the film's songs which are hilarious). However for the moment Winslow is making ends meet as the pianist for one of Swan's fifties knock-off groups. After hours and during breaks Winslow plays his own music. Swan likes what he hears and sends his top associate, Philbin (George Memmoli) to offer a position to Leach as staff writer and producer. All he has to do is leave his music for review and they'll be in touch. Excited, Winslow does just that and is somewhat surprised when he doesn't hear from Swan. 
Feeling that there must have been some sort of mistake he marches down to the record company where the secretary smiles at him and summons security to throw him out. Wimp or not Winslow takes his music VERY seriously. He goes back to the audition hall to confront Swan and is both flattered and angered where he sees a host of women singers auditioning with his music. He takes a fancy to one of them, Phoenix (Jessica Harper) as she is the only one who doesn't laugh when he tells her he wrote the song she's practicing. But the singing audition is also an casting couch audition (primarily for Philbin) and when Winslow is discovered he is thrown out. Eventually Swan has Winslow arrested, framed for narcotics dealing and sent to an experimental prison (funded by Swan) where his teeth will be removed. Finley's fourth wall breaking turn to the camera after sentencing and declaiming "But I'm innocent!!!" in front of the American flag has got to be one of the funniest and saddest lines in all of cinema. Mopping the prison floor one day the depressed and toothless Winslow hears Swan's fifties group butchering one of his songs. He snaps, goes completely berserk and after giving a few guards what for, escapes from prison. Winslow makes a beeline to Swan's Death Records warehouse where he tries to destroy every last single pressing of the stolen music. However he doesn't notices that a record pressing machine is on and suffers an unfortunate and face-altering accident. 
A few months later in the Paradise Theater Swan is running a group through its paces when a bomb goes off. Swan realizes that the disguised and disfigured Phantom is Winslow. He gives Winslow a voice box to help him speak. Swan offers to let Winslow write his masterpiece cantata , which will only be sung by Phoenix. And to close the offer, Swan gives Winslow a contract, which must be signed in blood....And things only get more interesting from there. If you can tolerate some dated references and some very bad KISS parodies, you might enjoy this film. I LOVE the original music written by Paul Williams for this movie. I can (badly) sing along with all of the songs. Again, if you're familiar with DePalma's work you might enjoy seeing the evolution of certain filmic techniques. But mainly I just enjoy the music. There are also some pretty good classical style pieces used in this film.  Look for a hilarious turn by Gerrit Graham as Beef, a rather fey rock singer who manages to channel Robert Plant and David Bowie at the same time. Graham steals every scene he's in. DePalma's Psycho homage with Graham cracks me up. Graham brings it. This was Jessica Harper's debut acting performance.  She also shows she's a good singer with Special to Me and Old Souls. The movie's theme song if it has one is probably The Hell of It.
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Little Deaths
I can't state strongly enough that this is not a movie for everyone. In fact I'm not sure it was even a movie for me. It's a British collection of three short minifilms which as the title, a French metaphor for orgasm, implies, are all about the intersections between sex, violence and death. Story number 1 involves the supernatural. Story number 2 involves scientific progress gained at a horrible price. Story number 3 has neither the supernatural nor the scientifically implausible.
Story 1: House and Home (directed by Sean Hogan) involves a rich nasty couple that likes to bring homeless women to their home so that they may "play with them". Of course for this couple "play" involves the idea of fun that a cat has with a mouse. However as it turns out this pair of cats may have picked the wrong mouse to play with. In fact they may not even be the cats in the "cat and mouse game". This short makes some some very explicit class analogies. It could be considered an allegory about class warfare and lower class resistance.

Story 2: Mutant Tool (directed by Andrew Parkinson) depicts a scientist using Nazi era technology to attempt to develop ESP and other mental powers. This involves severely disgusting activities and the usage of a call girl as an experimental subject. Obviously this sort of body horror brings Cronenberg's seminal 70's and 80's work to mind. But it goes beyond that into some places I wish it hadn't.
Story 3: Bitch (directed by Simon Rumley) is probably the "best" or least most well written story. It details a highly dysfunctional relationship between an attractive but EXTREMELY domineering woman and her boyfriend, a wimpy "nice guy". About the nicest thing his girlfriend does to him is humiliatingly (and openly) cuckold him in their own bed. Believe me she did worse to him. Much worse. But of course every dog has its day, now doesn't it.
ALL of these stories are EXTREMELY EXPLICIT (the movie is unrated) and physically or emotionally brutalizing. Both men and women are shown in very ugly ways. There is male and female nudity. This is not for the casual horror fan. Although it wasn't akin to the bloody mess of the Hostel or Saw movies it was in that neighborhood. If you can tolerate that sort of movie you could watch it. It wasn't really my cup of tea though I must admit Story 3 was quite well written and paced. It has a 7 minute wordless climax (no NOT that kind) that stays with the viewer for a while. The music was good too. Story 3 dealt with the unpleasant truth that good or bad, people respond to strength. And with either dogs or people it is much easier to correct bad behavior when it first starts than if you let it go on.  But really I felt I needed a shower after this movie to wash off the ugliness. If I had read honest reviews I wouldn't have watched this film. So I hope this review is honest. Your tastes may differ, though.  If you want to temporarily venture somewhere depraved, this is the movie for you. All three shorts are shot in a dark murky swamp of blue and gray lighting with occasional blasts of stark daylight. Sound is good. The dialogue is understandable for the non UK resident, which is occasionally a problem for me with UK accents.
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