Saturday, January 21, 2017

Trains, RV's, and Trucks

The Seven-Per-Cent Solution (1976): written by Nicholas Meyer and based on the novel by Nicholas Meyer and characters created by Arthur Conan Doyle; directed by Herbert Ross; starring Alan Arkin (Sigmund Freud), Vanessa Redgrave (Lola Deveraux), Robert Duvall (Dr. Watson), Nicol Williamson (Sherlock Holmes), Laurence Olivier (Professor James Moriarty), Joel Grey (Lowenstein), and Jeremy Kemp (Baron von Leinsdorf): Adapted by Nicholas 'Wrath of Khan' Meyer from his own revisionist Sherlock Holmes novel, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution is a barrel of fun with one minor problem: Robert Duvall's horrible English accent. 

How Duvall got cast as Dr. Watson is a good question. My best guess would be that the producers wanted another American in the major cast. This was an expensive production after all.

One can't say much about The Seven-Per-Cent Solution without giving away major plot points. Suffice to say that the movie looks great, is wittily written, and has a concluding action sequence that riffs on Buster Keaton's The General (and all without the benefit of CGI). Nicol Williamson pretty much plays Nicol Williamson, which is fine for Meyer's manic version of the great detective. Alan Arkin also delights as Sigmund Freud. Easily one of the ten best Sherlock Holmes movies ever made. Highly recommended.

The Neon Demon (2016): written by Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, and Polly Stenham; directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; starring Elle Fanning (Jesse), Karl Glusman (Dean), Jena Malone (Ruby), Bella Heathcote (Gigi), Abbey Lee (Sarah), and Keanu Reeves (Hank): Writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn works in the lurid pulp mode of Only God Forgives here, and not in the cooler style of his break-out film, Drive. 

The carefully composed, static shots and cool synth score suggest late-career Stanley Kubrick directing a very special episode of Melrose Place. The plot manages to surprise. The characters are barely characters, but as this is a horror movie centered on the cosmic terror of the modelling industry, one expects a keen devotion to surface. And a horror movie it is, not so much slowly building as suddenly exploding in the last half hour. 

The men are peripheral to the action, while the women take center stage. Elle Fanning performs beautifully as the enigmatic new model at the heart of the story, while Jena Malone and Abbey Lee embody different, dark aspects of the modelling industry. Not for the squeamish. Recommended.

From Dusk Till Dawn (1996): written by Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino; directed by Robert Rodriguez; starring George Clooney (Seth Gecko), Quentin Tarantino (Richard Gecko), Harvey Keitel (Jacob Fuller), Juliette Lewis (Kate Fuller), Ernest Liu (Scott Fuller), and Cheech Marin (Three characters): From Dusk Till Dawn still seems like two movies bolted together in the middle. The first movie is a gritty, amoral Tarantino crime drama about the bank-robbing Gecko brothers (George Clooney and Quentin Tarantino as Superego and Id, respectively). The second movie is a gore-soaked horror-comedy in the vein of Evil Dead 2

They're both good movies, but I'll be damned if I know how they got stuck together like this. Robert Rodriguez directs with a lot of gusto, and Tarantino's script is solid, pulpy fun in the second half. There's some poorly modulated sexual violence towards women in the first half, a problem magnified by the jokey, one-note performance by Tarantino as the sexually predatious Gecko brother whom Clooney's more upright criminal is stuck with. Jesus, Tarantino was (and is) a terrible actor. 

The second half goes on about ten minutes too long and bafflingly loses its antagonist about five minutes in. I enjoyed the movie, but I also felt a bit dirty afterwards. Harvey Keitel, George Clooney, and Juliette Lewis seem to be acting in (and reacting to) a completely different movie than anyone else. Their naturalistic performances accentuate the artificial grue and spew of the second half. Recommended.

Maximum Overdrive (1986): adapted by Stephen King from his short story "Trucks"; directed by Stephen King; starring Emilio Estevez (Bill), Pat Hingle (Hendershot), Laura Harrington (Brett), and Yeardley Smith (Connie): Revisiting the infamous Maximum Overdrive after 30 years, I was struck by how generally not-awful it was. This may just be a product of 30 more years of bad horror movies. I don't know. 

Stephen King's one-and-done directorial effort is intermittently clumsy, poorly shot, and uneven in tone. But there are moments of startling gore and grue. And Emilio Estevez sells the shit out of his character: this might actually be his best performance. The movie's premise suffers a bit from King's expansion of the, ahem, possession of things from Just Trucks in his short story to Pretty Much Whatever the Plot Demands in the movie. Watch for a young Giancarlo Esposito's brief turn. And yes, that's the voice of Bart Simpson as the world's most annoying newlywed. Lightly recommended.

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