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Our cinematic journey continues with last Friday’s viewings: we screened an abysmal Z-grade horror flick, an odd musical and another of this year’s contenders for Oscar gold.

blackenstein

Ugh…Blackenstein is proof positive that not all blaxploitation films were equally worthy of consideration. My original intention was to watch this as a double-feature with Blacula but that didn’t quite work as planned. As such, it ended up on a crammed Friday-bill where it really didn’t stand a chance. To be honest, this film wouldn’t have stood a chance no matter where I programmed it: Blackenstein is one colossal flop from the first frame to the last.

Plot (not that it matters) is fairly minimal: Dr. Winifred Walker (Ivory Stone) has come to see Dr. Stein (John Hart, in a friendly, jovial turn that is completely out of place in the story) in order to have him help her fiancee, Eddie (Joe de Sue, who has obviously never acted). You see, Eddie lost both arms and legs in Vietnam and Dr. Stein has been “working in the field of replacing limbs.” Sounds like a match made in heaven! Until, of course, Dr. Stein’s creepy assistant Malcomb (Roosevelt Jackson, who’s actually not bad) takes a shine to Winifred and sabotages Eddie’s treatments in order to get him out of the picture. Eddie head swells up, he gets angry and proceeds to rampage about the city, pulling the guts out of various women along the way. Winifred finally figures out what’s going on and Eddie saves her from Malcomb’s slimy clutches before getting devoured by police dogs.

There’s an awful lot wrong with Blackenstein, issues that pretty much cripple the film and prevent it from even rising to “so-bad-it’s-good-levels.” On a purely technical level, the transfer is absolutely awful: it looks like it was dubbed from TV to VHS. The sound keeps cutting out which, to be honest, isn’t a huge issue since the dialogue is so bad. Filmmaking basics are pretty non-existent: the cinematography is ugly, cuts are jarring, coverage is weird (lots of odd zooms on legs, feet, sidewalks, empty spaces and car doors), the music never fits with any given scene (chief offender being the scene where Winifred waits calmly for Dr. Stein as the soundtrack proceeds to out-Psycho Herrmann’s famous score) and the camera angles are often off-putting. Most of the sets appear to be made of cardboard, although that’s probably being generous, and the gore is about five solid steps back from Herschell Gordon Lewis’ heyday, featuring some of the most ludicrous gut-tossin’ you’ll (probably) ever see.

It goes without saying that the acting is completely wooden and terrible, as if everyone were trying to remember their lines. At one point during the middle of a big “speech,” Winifred proceeds to look down, off-camera: it’s pretty damn obvious that she reads the rest off a hidden script. Eddie is so unemotional that he delivers every last line with a sort of “Eh…what’re you gonna do?” shrug that drove me crazy after a few minutes. The piece de resistance, however, definitely comes from the hospital attendant (John Dennis). He begins by bullying the bed-ridden Eddie before launching into a jaw-droppingly over-the-top “monologue” about how he was kept from serving in Vietnam due to his physical condition. I’m not sure what we’re supposed to garner from this scene but it keeps going and going and going, an Energizer Bunny on crack.

Compared to Blacula, Blackenstein’s faults become even more glaring. Whereas Blacula featured an almost entirely black cast and possessed quite a bit of dignity, Blackenstein only features a couple of black actors and puts them in some pretty humiliating situations. We don’t even get the awesome funky music that powered Blacula: instead, we get two tepid soul songs sprinkled throughout the film, while the rest of the soundtrack consists of weak “Hammer-lite” instrumentals. There’s a niteclub scene, as in Blacula, but it mostly features a comedian telling jokes and lasts for way too long. It’s obvious that the filmmakers envisioned this as more of a Hammer/Euro-trash film than a blaxploitation film but the whole thing has such a confused sense of identity that none of it works.

Like any film made to jump on a hot trend, Blackenstein is pretty bankrupt of anything resembling imagination, innovation or intelligence. Avoid this like the plague.

one_from_heart_mar28

If you think about it, anticipation for One From the Heart must’ve been through the roof when it first came out in 1982. For one thing, it was Francis Ford Coppola’s first film since his iconic Apocalypse Now (1979) and the latest in an unbeatable string that included The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974) and The Godfather Two (1974). Audiences had no reason to expect anything less sensational than his previous four films, after all, particularly with that lethal Godfather Two/Apocalypse Now combo. For another thing, musicals were extremely popular box office fare at that time. After all, Annie had come out a scant three months before and would become the 10th highest grossest film of 1982. This was the era of The Blues Brothers (1980), The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1982), Victor/Victoria (1982, nominated for seven Oscars) and Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983): a big-screen musical from Francis Ford Coppola must have seemed like a surefire hit.

What actually happened, unfortunately, was a bit more akin to the sinking of the Titanic (the actual event, not the James Cameron money-maker): One From the Heart tanked at the box office, taking in just over a half-million in profits, although the film cost upwards of $20 million to make. Coppola declared bankruptcy and would (according to his own accounts) spend the next two decades making films in order to pay back the loss. Although this would result in The Outsiders and Rumblefish (both 1983), Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) and Dracula (1992), it would also result in Gardens of Stone (1987), The Godfather Part III (1990), Jack (1996) and The Rainmaker (1997). So, technically, a complete wash.

So, after all the dust has cleared, how does One From the Heart hold up thirty years later? While nowhere near a classic and a decidedly odd follow-up to Apocalypse Now, One From the Heart certainly has its merits. The film involves the adventures of Hank (Frederic Forrest) and Frannie (Teri Garr), a couple living in Las Vegas and about to celebrate their fifth year together. As will often happen, things are less than ideal: Frannie wants excitement, Hank just wants to chill and Sin City is calling them both to its neon embrace. Before long, Frannie has left and found excitement with a singing waiter (Raul Julia), Hank is tripping the light fantastic with a comely young dancer (Nastassja Kinski) and their poor, put-upon best friends (Harry Dean Stanton and Lainie Kazan, in supporting roles that easily steal the film from every other actor) are trying to help pick up the pieces. Before long, Frannie and Hank will come to realize one important thing: being in love may not be easy but it sure as hell beats the alternative.

First of all, One From the Heart has a pretty unbeatable soundtrack, courtesy of the inimitable Tom Waits. This marked the tail-end of Waits’ drunken troubadour phase, as 1983’s Swordfishtrombones would mark his first full foray into the experimental blues stomps that would characterize the rest of his career. Here, Waits and duet-partner Crystal Gayle are at their loveliest, wrapping the action in the kid of melancholy drinkers’ ballads that could be found on classics like Blue Valentine and Small Change. The score is a perfect accompaniment to the bruised-heart story and is responsible for quite a bit of my goodwill towards the film.

The film also a pretty cool artificial look to it, which makes sense considering Coppola built his version of Las Vegas entirely on soundstages at his new American Zoetrope Studios. While other might disagree (and the extensive sets were certainly one of the reasons why the film went so far over budget), I really liked the look, especially in any of the scenes involving the sign/mascot “graveyard.” As mentioned earlier, Stanton (two years before Repo Man) and Kazan (a few years away from Lust in the Dust) are pretty great in the film: I wish they had at least twice the screen-time, if not more.

What didn’t work for me? Lots of the acting, to be honest, especially from Forrest, Garr, Julia and Kinski. Julia isn’t bad but Kinski is super-obnoxious, reminding me of nothing so much as the “manic-pixie-girls” that currently glut indie-romantic cinema. Forrest and Garr are fairly generic: we don’t necessarily buy them as being in  love, which makes everything else in the film seem sort of silly. As befits the style, much of the film tends to be very theatrical and at least one of the big song-and-dance sequences (a routine that manages to mix Saturday Night Fever with the Vegas Strip) is head-smackingly dumb.

For all of these faults, however, One From the Heart is still a pretty amiable film. At times (although not often), the film is even quite beautiful, reminding me of some of Jeunet’s early work. As mentioned earlier, the music is pretty magical and it’s always great to see Harry Dean Stanton and Lainie Kazan in anything. Did this deserve to tank Coppola’s career and introduce the world to Jack? Absolutely not. Was this a worthy follow-up to Apocalypse Now? Magic 8-Ball says “Very doubtful.”

The_Croods_Motion_Poster_a_p

And then, of course, it was time for me to be really surprised. While I’m a huge animation fan, I must admit that modern big-budget animated features do very little for me. As a rule, I find them to be too crude, self-referential and filled with disposable pop culture minutiae, the cartoon equivalent of those loathsome “Scary/Disaster/Whatever” film “parodies” that continue to crop up like weeds. Nevertheless, it is Oscar season and I’m committed to seeing as many of the nominees as humanly possible. Since Dreamworks’ The Croods was nominated for Best Animated Feature, I figured I might as well sit through it. After all, it had to be more entertaining than Dirty Wars or American Hustle, right?

And how! Without hyperbole, I can honestly say that I fell in love with this pretty quickly and stayed in love for the entire running time. Similar to The Castle, this is a film about family, first and foremost, and their take on this is decidedly less snarky and screeching than most. With Nicholas “The Fury” Cage playing patriarch Grug, I was worried that this would end up being an over-the-top affair like Shrek. As luck would have it, however, this was Cage with a modicum of restraint and a maximum of charm: not only is his character perfectly lovable, he’s also perfectly realized as the overly protective father/husband/cave-man. The rest of the voice talent is equally great: Emma Stone projects the right blend of defiance and naiety as Eep; Catherine Keener is always great and she’s no less so as mother Ugga; Ryan Reynolds is actually very likeable as Guy; and Cloris Leachman, essentially, reprises her role from Raising Grace, to great effect.

There are plenty of good life lessons to be found here, none of which are delivered with a particularly heavy hand. At heart, The Croods is about the importance of family and the need to face your fears rather than giving in to them. When their cave is destroyed by an earthquake, The Croods must travel across uncharted territory in order to find a new place to live. Along the way, they meet Guy and his delightful sloth friend Belt (quite possibly one of the cutest critters in a long line of animated sidekicks), a ravenous sabre-toothed tiger (which becomes Grug’s pet in one of the sweetest, heartwarming scenes in the whole film) and discover lots of new creatures.

Their discovery of the new creatures is, in my opinion, one of the best aspects of The Croods. There were two ways that the filmmakers could have gone about the Croods discovering their new world. On the one hand, we could be shown creatures that are old to us (dinosaurs, big mammals, etc…) but new to the Croods. There’s nothing wrong with this tact, although it certainly makes it a little more difficult for an audience to feel the same sense of wonder. On the other hand, the filmmakers could attempt to find a way to make the discoveries new to us, as well, so that we can experience the Croods new world with the same sense of wonder and excitement that they do. To my great delight, they chose option number 2.

To this end, the filmmakers unleash their imaginations and go hog-wild with some incredibly clever animal-hybrids: we get flying turtle-parrots, land-walking whale-elephants, ferocious owl-cats and multi-colored bird-tigers. In fact, there doesn’t appear to be a “regular” animal anywhere in the film, unless one counts the versatile Belt. There’s so much stuff happening in the margins of the screen that I’m assuming multiple views are necessary to really see everything. Couple this with some truly gorgeous animation (the first time they see the night sky is nothing short of magical), some really suspenseful action scenes (the bit where Guy and Grug are trapped in tar is pretty great) and some truly funny dialogue (“He’s riding the sun!…But not very well.”), and the replay factor for The Croods is pretty high.

Ultimately, The Croods was a film that surprised me early and often. I went into it expecting to see some slick, well-produced but ultimately soulless piece of Hollywood animation. What I got, however, was a gorgeous film with tons of imagination, heart and spirit, a movie that hearkened back to the glory days of animation with none of the needless self-reference of today (if there were any allusions or nods to current pop culture trends/issues in the film, they must have gone largely over my head).

As I’ve done with every Oscar-nominated film, thus far, I’ve asked myself the same question: did this film deserve to get nominated and can it actually win the prize? In this instance? Yes and yes.

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