Film Review: Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Also known as: Phantom, Phantom of the Fillmore (working titles)
Release Date: November 1st, 1974
Directed by: Brian De Palma
Written by: Brian De Palma
Music by: Paul Williams
Cast: Paul Williams, William Finley, Jessica Harper, Gerrit Graham, Rod Sterling (voice, uncredited)

Harbor Productions, 20th Century Fox, 91 Minutes

Review:

“[to Beef] Never sing my music again. Not here, not anywhere. Do you understand? Never again. My music is for Phoenix. Only she can sing it. Anyone else who tries, dies!” – The Phantom

This film often gets lumped together in conversations with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. The films came out around the same time, share a lot of similarities and have both developed cult followings. However, this film is far superior and I find it strange that it’s cult following is nowhere near as massive as Rocky Horror‘s.

I think this film has the edge in that it was written and directed by Brian De Palma, who was one of the top up and coming directors of the time. He was at a creative high and even though this film merges a lot of genres and is overly surreal and very absurdist, it’s kind of a masterpiece in that all the parts fit together and there has never been anything like this since. Well, at least nothing like this that was anywhere near as good as this.

Additionally, I’ve gone on record multiple times about my general dislike of musicals. Well, De Palma made a musical with this film and it is one of my absolute favorite films of the 1970s. In fact, I dig the hell out of the music in this picture and it all works in a way that makes sense. And I guess it’s not a musical with a traditional musical structure but it is chock full of tunes that progress the story without unnaturally pulling you out of it for the sake of wedging in another musical number.

The film stars actual rock star Paul Williams in what is my favorite role he’s ever had, playing Swan, a demonic record producer.

But the film is really carried by De Palma favorite, William Finley. It’s Finley’s over the top and batshit crazy performance that takes this film to heights it would not have reached without him in the title role as the Phantom. Finley is always great but this truly is his magnum opus, as he gives great range, exudes his passion for this role proudly with every frame and commits to the bit full throttle.

As good as both Williams and Finley are though, the film is also bolstered by the talent of Gerrit Graham. He’s had a lot of great roles within the horror genre but this is Graham at his best, as well. He plays a rock star simply named Beef. His onstage performance is incredible, his comedic timing is superb and he is a big, sweet cherry on top of this already perfect sundae.

And then there’s Jessica Harper. She’s most famous for being the lead in the original Suspiria from 1977 and even has a small role in the 2018 remake. She plays the apple of the Phantom’s eye and she’s terrific. Her performances are also solid and she has a lot more spunk in this film than what fans of Suspiria might expect. It’s really cool seeing her play a role that’s a departure from the one she’s most known for.

Phantom of the Paradise also boasts some incredible visuals. The film feels like a true rock opera of the highest caliber and even if this was made on what I guess was a modest budget, De Palma takes advantage of his surroundings, his sets and the talent he had working on this picture.

The cinematography is damn good and it is greatly impacted by the lighting, as well as the camera movement and shot framing of De Palma. It’s not just the colorful characters on the screen and the stupendous tunes that give this film all of its energy. A lot of it comes from the camerawork and the attention to detail within every single frame of this picture.

I can accept the fact that most people probably won’t view this movie the same way that I do and that’s fine. But from where I sit, it’s a damn fine motion picture that is incredibly unique and a pillar of imagination and creativity.

Rating: 10/10
Pairs well with: I guess The Rocky Horror Picture Show is the closest film to this but it pales in comparison.

Film Review: Nightfall (1956)

Release Date: November 9th, 1956 (UK)
Directed by: Jacques Tourneur
Written by: Stirling Silliphant
Based on: Nightfall by David Goodis
Music by: George Duning, Morris Stoloff
Cast: Aldo Ray, Brian Keith, Anne Bancroft, Jocelyn Brando

A Copa Production, Columbia Pictures, 79 Minutes

Review:

“Anyway, I’m scared. You don’t know what it is to live with your back against the wall, Marie. Inside you change. You really change.” – James Vanning

Jacques Tourneur was always a solid director, so I definitely wanted to check out this film-noir picture of his, as I hadn’t yet seen it. Plus, it was part of the Criterion Channel’s Columbia Noir featured category and I’m trying to work through all of the films on that list that I haven’t yet seen.

I jumped on this one because I like Tourneur and I also wanted to see something with Anne Bancroft that came out much earlier than her most famous role as Mrs. Robinson in 1967’s The Graduate.

Tourneur had a great eye and a real understanding of cinematography, lighting and shot framing. He was a maestro of mise en scène, which is very apparent in his earlier horror films: Cat People, I Walk With a Zombie, The Leopard Man and his most famous noir: the Robert Mitchum starring Out of the Past.

Nightfall is no different and frankly, it’s a fabulous looking picture with a meticulous attention to detail in a visual sense. It looks crisp, pristine and the silvery hues are greatly accented by a mostly subdued but pretty apparent chiaroscuro presentation. The film uses contrast greatly, which is mostly done fairly subtly except for the wilderness scenes where the snowy landscape sort of works as a blank backdrop and pushes the characters to the forefront. The big fight at the end is the greatest example of this, as the two men fight in the snow, ending with the villain getting eaten alive by a snowplow truck. I kind of expected some black blood splatter but that was too graphic for 1956. Tourneur probably would’ve given it to us if this was one of his horror pictures though.

The film also benefits from the good chemistry between its leads: Aldo Ray and Anne Bancroft. Their relationship seemed natural and organic and in the early moment in the film where you feel that she set him up, your heart sinks a little bit.

Aldo Ray, who I haven’t seen in much, made me a fan with his performance here. He is a rugged man but he is able to convey a sort of gentle softness without sacrificing his masculinity. You feel for the guy and want to see him come away from this story unscathed but this is a noir picture and that’s something that rarely happens.

While you may feel a bit of frustration with Bancroft after her first encounter with Ray, she wins you back over rather quickly and even if you are waiting for that standard femme fatale double cross later in the film, she’s very easy to like. But does she turn against our hero? And does he have a happy ending? I’d rather not spoil it.

Nightfall is a much better film than I anticipated it being, even as a Tourneur fan. It’s a solid film-noir even if it doesn’t go as dark as the genre typically does. I’m kind of baffled that it isn’t more widely known and held up as one of the top noir pictures alongside Tourneur’s Out of the Past.

Rating: 8.75/10
Pairs well with: other Columbia Pictures noir films: Pushover, My Name Is Julia Ross and Drive a Crooked Road.

Film Review: Body Heat (1981)

Release Date: August 28th, 1981
Directed by: Lawrence Kasdan
Written by: Lawrence Kasdan
Music by: John Barry
Cast: William Hurt, Kathleen Turner, Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, J. A. Preston, Mickey Rourke, Kim Zimmer, Jane Hallaren, Lanna Saunders

The Ladd Company, Warner Bros., 113 Minutes

Review:

“I’m really disappointed in you, Racine. I’ve been living vicariously off of you for years. You shut up on me now, all I have is my wife.” – Peter

Lawrence Kasdan is probably most known for being one of the writers that worked alongside George Lucas on the original Star Wars trilogy, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark. But here, he not only writes but he directs. And it was his working relationship with Lucas that helped him get this film produced. In fact, Lucas put up some of the money himself, even though he’s not officially given a producer credit.

It’s interesting that Kasdan’s directorial debut was something so different than what audiences had known him for, which were primarily high adventure pictures. But Kasdan made a very true to form film-noir picture. But maybe it was too close and that worked against it; I’ll explain.

Kasdan’s story for Body Heat drew inspiration from the 1944 film-noir classic Double Indemnity. In fact, there are some pretty stark similarities but Body Heat is not a complete rehash and it certainly stands on its own, despite having very similar cues.

The film is really carried by the strong performance by William Hurt. Kathleen Turner stars alongside him as the typical femme fatale and while she’s pretty good, she comes off as more of a caricature of the femme fatale archetype than feeling like she is giving a genuine performance. But I don’t think that’s on her, as she’s proven how capable she is. I think it could be a combination of Kasdan’s direction and writing, as he was possibly trying to squeeze her into an image he had, as opposed to letting her put more of herself into the role.

Still, Hurt offsets the awkward clunkiness of Turner and the rest of the cast between Richard Crenna, Ted Danson, Mickey Rourke and everyone else, keeps the ship moving in the right direction.

The story is pretty good but it’s not anything new, especially if you’re a fan of the noir genre. Despite a few good twists and turns throughout this labyrinthine plot, nothing that happens is shocking and it is kind of predictable in retrospect. In fact, even though I enjoyed this, it didn’t give much of anything new to the genre it emulates.

In regards to it being a modernization of classic film-noir, it isn’t the first film to do that either. But if this is anything, it’s Lawrence Kasdan’s love letter to film-noir and for the most part, it’s a nice love letter that makes its point rather well.

Body Heat certainly isn’t forgettable but it’s a long way off from redefining what noir could be like Blood Simple and The American Friend did. But strangely, I did enjoy this a hair bit more than Blood Simple.

Rating: 7.25/10
Pairs well with: other neo-noir films of the era: Blood Simple, The American Friend and the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice.

Film Review: A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014)

Release Date: January 19th, 2014 (Sundance)
Directed by: Ana Lily Amirpour
Written by: Ana Lily Amirpour
Music by: Bei Ru
Cast: Sheila Vand, Arash Marandi, Mozhan Marno, Marshall Manesh, Dominic Rains, Rome Shadanloo

Say Ahh Productions, SpectreVision, Logan Pictures, 101 Minutes

Review:

“Don’t leave me. Don’t leave me alone.” – Arash

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is a unique film.

First of all, it takes place in Iran but was filmed in the United States with all the actors speaking in Persian. Additionally, it considers itself to be the first Persian vampire western, which is an odd description.

In fact, I don’t know where the western genre comes into play other than one specific scene where the film’s composer is clearly borrowing from the style of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti western scores.

Anyway, as bizarre as this thing is, it’s a really solid film. While it is full of immense darkness, it is also full of sweetness.

It’s also one of the coolest films of the last decade.

I think a lot of that has to do with some of the deliberate style choices in regards to the genre melding, the cinematography, the use of music and the personalities of the cast. But how many films have a skateboarding vampire?

At points, this is a slow moving picture but everything is presented in a way that lures you in. You don’t mind the slow build because the actors are able to convey a lot of emotion with pretty understated performances. But I also think that a lot of that credit has to go to the director, Ana Lily Amirpour, who employs a great understanding of mise-en-scène that it enhances the actors’ abilities. Amirpour crafted an impressive stylistic framework that brings everything together quite nicely, especially with the movie being carried by performance.

I love the cinematography, which is done in black and white and takes its chiaroscuro cues from classic film-noir and German Expressionism.

A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night is an enchanting film and with that, is beautiful to look at. It delivers a sort of cinematic intimacy that most filmmakers, over the last decade, aren’t able to achieve. It feels like something from another era, even if it has things within the film that date it as modern.

However, like other vampire films, it has that one plot point that always bothers me with the genre. What I’m referring to is how a being that has existed for a few hundred years can fall in love with someone in their early twenties. It’s a plot device in vampire fiction that as all too common. I get the part about being attracted to youth and innocence but I’m now 40 years-old and I can’t go on a date with a 25 year-old and find anything to talk about. I can’t imagine how that date would go if I ever make it to 200. But at the same time, it’s a trope of vampire stories and I’m not going to come down on this picture too hard for it.

Rating: 8.25/10
Pairs well with: other arthouse vampire movies: Only Lovers Left Alive, Let the Right One In, Shadow of a Vampire, Near Dark and The Hunger.

Film Review: Annie Hall (1977)

Also known as: It Had to be Jew, Anhedonia (working titles)
Release Date: March 27th, 1977 (Filmex)
Directed by: Woody Allen
Written by: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Music by: various
Cast: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Tony Roberts, Carol Kane, Paul Simon, Janet Margolin, Shelley Duvall, Christopher Walken, Colleen Dewhurst, Dick Cavett, John Glover, Mark Lenard, Jeff Goldblum, Beverly D’Angelo, Tracey Walter, Sigourney Weaver, Truman Capote, Laurie Bird

Jack Rollins & Charles H. Joffe Productions, Rollins-Joffe Productions, United Artists, 93 Minutes

Review:

“[referring to California] It’s so clean out here.” – Annie Hall, “That’s because they don’t throw their garbage away, they turn it into television shows.” – Alvy Singer

I’m not what you would call a big Woody Allen fan but I do find a lot of his films to be amusing. This is one of them and this is also probably my favorite out of the Allen pictures that I’ve seen.

While I’ve seen all of the famous scenes from Annie Hall time and time again in documentaries and shows about movies, I’ve never seen this film in its entirety and in the proper sequence with all of the narrative context. In some ways, this film is actually kind of genius in how refreshing, original and authentic it feels. But I also didn’t know, until now, that this was sort of autobiographical in regards to Allen and Diane Keaton’s real romantic relationship a few years before this movie.

What makes this work so well is the natural chemistry between Allen and Keaton. But even then, Allen had solid chemistry in his scenes with Shelley Duvall and Carol Kane. It’s hard to say that he’s a great actor when he’s essentially just playing himself but his natural charm works wonders in this picture and it gives a certain life to scenes that may have felt dry if played by someone else.

Diane Keaton was lovable and fun in the picture and I think she is the real glue of the film, even more so than Allen. The reason being is that she just radiates a glow that encapsulates anyone on the screen with her. You clearly see the woman that Woody Allen is legitimately infatuated with.

From a narrative standpoint, this is Allen writing what he knows most intimately. But even then, I don’t think that this authentic tale would have had the magic without the performances in the film. This is lightyears better than a standard romantic comedy but I feel like that’s because the main players felt very at home with the material and they took this very seriously, where most romantic comedies tend to by cheesy and lacking depth in the performances of their actors.

Allen certainly knows how to direct and it is very apparent here. He gets the most out of everyone on screen, including himself. It’s easy to write about your life but it’s difficult to make something so genuine.

In the end, this is a fun, cute, lighthearted picture that presents romance and comedy in a unique way that is very much Woody Allen. He’s had similar films but nothing that hits the right notes in quite the same way.

Rating: 8.5/10
Pairs well with: other early Woody Allen films.

Film Review: Career Opportunities (1991)

Also known as: One Wild Night (working title)
Release Date: March 29th, 1991
Directed by: Bryan Gordon
Written by: John Hughes
Music by: Thomas Newman
Cast: Frank Whaley, Jennifer Connelly, Dermot Mulroney, Kieran Mulroney, Barry Corbin, William Forsythe, John Candy (uncredited)

Hughes Entertainment, Universal Pictures, 83 Minutes

Review:

“[to himself] She’s so beautiful. And I’m the town liar.” – Jim Dodge

This film probably gets a worse rap than it should. If you are comparing it to John Hughes’ top films, yeah, it falls short. But it is still a fun and amusing coming of age comedy that still has the John Hughes spirit worked into its script.

Maybe some of the problems with this is that Hughes didn’t direct the movie and that it rehashed a lot of ideas that he already addressed in better ways with previous films like The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles but those ideas are still worth exploring in a fresher way with characters that are a bit older.

I liked Frank Whaley and I know that even he had reservations about his own performance and being cast in the role but I think he did a good job and he was certainly likable in this, despite being the “town liar”. Really, he’s just a chronic embellisher and storyteller.

Jennifer Connelly also did a good job and her performance and line delivery were actually better than what the script called for. But I think the thing that worked well for this picture was that she had really good, natural chemistry with Whaley.

I also liked all the smaller characters in the film like the cameos by John Candy and William Forsythe, as well as the scenes with the always entertaining Barry Corbin. Dermot and Kieran Mulroney were also enjoyable as the bumbling bandits that come in at the end of the film.

If I’m being honest, some of my love for this movie could be due to nostalgia. As a kid, this movie was cool because what kid didn’t want to be locked in a Target all night with the entire store as a playground? Plus, I was crushing hard on Jennifer Connelly and frankly, that’s a crush that never really died, as she still catches my attention in almost every film she’s in.

For the time, the soundtrack is also solid. It features a lot of pop hits but it’s that weird era where music was transitioning from the ’80s into the ’90s and being middle school age when this movie came out, meant that a lot of the music worked for me and the time.

While I wouldn’t put this in the upper echelon of Hughes’ work, it’s still a fun, energetic and entertaining movie. Hughes actually requested to have his name taken off of the film, as he didn’t like the finished product, but I still think this is a better picture than most people give it credit for.

Career Opportunities achieved what it set out to do. It was made to be a lighthearted coming of age comedy that served as escapism for an hour and a half. Okay, maybe it fell just slight of that running time but it was good escapism for a twelve year-old in 1991. And I still revisit it every half decade or so.

Rating: 6.5/10
Pairs well with: other coming of age John Hughes comedies: Ferris Bueller’s Day OffWeird ScienceSixteen CandlesThe Breakfast ClubPretty In PinkSome Kind of Wonderful, etc.

Film Review: Nobody Lives Forever (1946)

Release Date: November 1st, 1946
Directed by: Jean Negulesco
Written by: W.R. Burnett
Based on: Nobody Lives Forver by W.R. Burnett
Music by: Adolph Deutsch
Cast: John Garfield, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Walter Brennan, Faye Emerson

Warner Bros., 100 Minutes

Review:

“I don’t wanna get rough with you unless I have to!” – Nick Blake

This film starts out as a very gritty film-noir crime tale. But it actually evolves into something with a real sweetness to it once the two leads, John Garfield and Geraldine Fitzgerald, come into contact with one another and romance blooms. Granted, this is not a romance film, in the traditional sense.

It also has a solid femme fatale, played by the incredibly alluring Faye Emerson.

This picture is well acted from top to bottom and as much as I love Garfield, Fitzgerald and Emerson, there is a real scene stealer in George Coulouris. Man, this guy just takes over each scene where he appears.

The story follows a con man and former World War II soldier that wants to go straight. However, as noirs go, he has to pull off one more job before he can attempt to live a normal life. And also as noirs go, there are twists and turns and this last job isn’t going to be an easy one. Especially when a woman gets caught up in the middle of it all and melts his heart. It also doesn’t help that his ex-girlfriend shows up to throw a wrench in the machine.

The film is written by W.R. Burnett, a man who wrote solid films like Little Caesar, Scarface, High Sierra, The Postman Always Rings Twice, The Asphalt Jungle, The Racket and Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. Burnett always seemed to write things that I thoroughly enjoyed and this picture was no different. It’s well paced, has layers, surprises and doesn’t get bogged down by being too typical for a noir.

The cinematography is superb but it’s really the set design that gives this film its visual life. Everything either looks opulent and pristine or it looks lush and robust. Even the dim and gritty looking finale of the film has a set with character.

Not to spoil anything but its nice that this film doesn’t end in complete tragedy and that the protagonists go on to live the life that they want. Sometimes that’s nice in a noir, as it certainly isn’t the standard. Here, it just works and by film’s end, I was glad that these two endearing characters weren’t fodder for the bullets of the law. Maybe that’s because despite some of his shady actions, Garfield’s character still had a good moral center and never got wrapped up in the femme fatale’s tentacles and instead, chose the good woman.

Rating: 7.5/10
Pairs well with: High Sierra, Humoresque, Three Strangers and He Ran All the Way.