A.J. Hakari's sporadically-updated musings on the wide world of movies

Month: January, 2013

“The Imposter” (2012)

"The Imposter" poster


(WARNING: The following review goes into detail about the story behind this film. It is this writer’s opinion that The Imposter is best experienced knowing as little as possible going in, so if you want the best viewing experience you can get, please stop reading now and watch the movie. It’s awesome. But if you don’t mind spoilers or have already seen the film, feel free to read on.)


Among the marks I hope to make in my lifetime is doing away with the stigma of the documentary. I’d love for nothing more than to see stricken from the public consciousness the genre’s association with crusty educational film strips and PSAs that are due for a good Rifftrax at any moment. Life has loads of strange stories to tell, and The Imposter is one of them. You’re aware from the outset that this film is not to be trusted, yet half the pleasure of watching it involves your willingness to be played. Saying too much about The Imposter is easy to do, so if a simple “wow” isn’t enough of an endorsement, I don’t know what is.

In 1994, Nicholas Barclay vanished without a trace from San Antonio, Texas. Three years of searching and praying yielded no results for the boy’s family, until they received one fateful phone call. Not only has a teenaged Nicholas been apparently found alive and well, he’s turned up in Spain, of all places. Regardless of this odd turn of events, the family is ecstatic and welcomes him back with open arms…a move not entirely wise. As it turns out, “Nicholas” is actually Frederic Bourdin, a 23-year-old Frenchman whose little white lie to get out of the rain snowballed into assuming a missing child’s identity. But the deeper Frederic ingratiates himself into Nicholas’ world, the more complex his fibs become, giving him less and less room to escape when the authorites catch wind of his deception.

The Imposter is the essence of Alfred Hitchcock’s oft-repeated definition of suspense; every minute is spent just waiting for the proverbial bomb to go off under the table. As a grieving family unknowingly takes in a complete stranger, you can only wonder when, if, and how Frederic’s cover will be blown. Interviews with Bourdin himself and Nicholas’ relatives are featured amidst dramatic re-creations of the whole weird affair, assaulting the viewer with confusion on all fronts. How could these people be fooled by someone who, at first glance, bears a mild at best resemblance to their lost loved one? Why would Frederic commit so much of himself to his ruse? Answers are given, but the truth is always in flux, with the possibility of being conned lurking around every revelation.

The trick with The Imposter is that you’re never really sure of which side to take. Frederic is a charmer who can act innocent with the best of them, but what comes to light about his background casts doubt over everything that comes out of his mouth. You sympathize with Nicholas’ family because of the deceit hoisted upon them, but you start wondering who’s not saying what when the question of what did happen to Nicholas is raised. Okay, so that last bit comes across as something of a conspiracy theory that’s not delved into too deeply; ultimately, the film favors the victims, and it’s not the least bit surprising to learn that Frederic is no stranger to fraud. But that an element of mistrust is introduced and effectively developed at all is a triumph. This thing has you second-guessing yourself exactly when it wants to.

The Imposter is one of the most well-crafted, compelling, and attention-grabbing documentaries I’ve seen in a while. More than just putting a pre-existing whopper of a story onscreen, it does so with a breed of manipulation that’s a bitch to master. But sporadic bumps aside, The Imposter nails it, so great as to make you curse the thought of someone attempting a fictionalized remake.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains” (1982)

"Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains" poster

Funny how your feelings on a film shift whenever you watch it. The day you’re having, the company you’re with, and the venue all effect one’s perception, creating a virtually new viewing experience each time. Now I had never seen Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains until now, but I can tell that my younger self would’ve been a sucker for its rebellious nature, drawn to its troubled protagonist in the same way I was by The 400 Blows and its hero. But just as a repeat viewing casted Jean-Pierre Leaud’s troublemaker as a brat who needed to get his act straight, the embittered bastard I am has to recognize Fabulous Stains as a sloppy drama that neither criticizes or sympathizes with its lead character in any meaningful way.

Corinne Burns (Diane Lane) is angry. Angry at her mother’s death, angry that she’s losing her home, and angry that everyone else in her dying town is content with mediocrity. Corinne wants more from life, and after seeing punk musician Billy (Ray Winstone) perform, she knows just how to get it: by forming her own rock group. Granted, neither Corinne nor her bandmates (Marin Kanter and Laura Dern) can play that well, but that doesn’t stop them from going on tour with Billy and earning fans who hang on their every tirade against an unfair society. But will the band’s message survive their rise in show business, or will Corinne become the very puppet she started out hating?

Yep, Fabulous Stains is one of those movies. The “Behind the Music” story, the template that dictates that characters rack up notoriety as quickly as it renders them insufferable douchemongers. It’s not going away anytime soon, so it’s to this film’s credit that it at least chose an interesting target. Director Lou Adler shows us that the world of punk is as susceptible to fame’s many temptations as that of pop music. There’s delicious irony in seeing identically-dressed concertgoers listening to Corinne’s gospel of being unique (think Life of Brian — “WE ARE ALL INDIVIDUALS!”). But Fabulous Stains stops short after nailing these admittedly easy target, addressing the big picture well enough but ignoring almost all the character intimacy that would have made it a more raw, painful, and complete picture.

Corinne has attitude, which the movie makes abundantly clear. She has the desire to better herself but is impressionable enough to easily stray, a blend of rage and naivete that, developed the right way, would make for a crackling character cocktail. But Fabulous Stains never draws upon this, putting Corinne through the usual turn of events in stories like this (being seduced by success, betraying her friends, etc.) with the same pouty-puss face. With no clear motivation behind so many of her actions, she comes off as a terrible person from beginning to end, a whiner whom we not only never understand but don’t really have a desire to in the first place. It’s a shame, because Lane can rock a thousand-yard stare, and the succession of industrial wastelands the Stains visit are as bleak as they croon about. Too bad Corinne feels like the kind of person who’d screw over her loved ones even without merchandising residuals to influence her.

I like to think I haven’t reached the “get off my lawn” stage of life when I’m just in my 20s, but Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains didn’t do anything for my inner whippersnapper. It’s one thing to understand where a directionless youth’s disillusionment is coming from, and it’s another to watch a jerk use “Because I’m YOUNG!” as an excuse for being a jerk. Bitchin’ tunes and decent acting aside, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Fabulous Stains is a bust as both punk satire and character piece.

“Hollywood Ending” (2002)

"Hollywood Ending" poster

Most comedies about the filmmaking process inevitably let me down. Where I anticipate no-punches-pulled levels of savagery on par with The Player, I usually get show business softballs. Studio executives are clueless meatheads with box office on the brain? Buxom starlets want to screw their way onto the marquee? Stop it, the insight’s too much! That said, I didn’t quite think Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending would be a merciless work (of which he’s capable — Stardust Memories, anyone?), and upon its theatrical release, I got a kick out of the picture’s gentle jabs. But as both silly farce and clever satire, Hollywood Ending has weakened a decade down the line, amusing in patches but disconnected and half-cocked on the whole.

Allen plays Val Waxman, a director whose days as an auteur are long behind him. Now he’s grateful to get a gig on a deodorant ad, though an unlikely source is about to give him one last shot at saving his career. Galaxie Pictures is preparing a big-budget period drama, and the producer, Val’s ex Ellie (Tea Leoni), thinks he’s the right helmsman for the job. Despite some misgivings — including the fact that Ellie is currently shacked up with Galaxie’s head honcho (Treat Williams) — Val accepts and sets about getting himself back on track. That is, until the first day of shooting, when all of Val’s neuroses and worries manifest themselves in a bout of psychosomatic blindness, forcing Val to think fast and keep his ailment under wraps long enough to finish filming a movie he can’t even see.

Any way you interpret it, Hollywood Ending is pretty lacking. As a straight comedy, the jokes are obvious and of scant variety. Constantly espousing about his blindness and explaining the hell out of a long-established gimmick doesn’t earn Allen many giggles (neither does his sporadic stumbling into furniture). Even the Hollywood digs are on the pale side, culminating in a few nice one-liners (as when Ellie has an assistant congratulate Haley Joel Osment on a lifetime achievement award) but nothing with the teeth to tear the industry open from the inside out. But as an opportunity for Allen to air out concerns for his personal and professional lives, Hollywood Ending especially misses the boat. With subplots involving failed marriage(s) and shortcomings as a parent, you’d think Allen was moving in a therapeutic direction with his story. Alas, this is lovably neurotic Woody we’re dealing with here, so every step towards developing his character is cut short by a vixen inexplicably eager to jump his bespectacled bones.

Is it fair to say Hollywood Ending feels like it’s on autopilot? As much as I hate to parrot critics who keep talking about how Allen’s newer stuff isn’t as good as his old stuff, it kind of does, but that doesn’t mean the Woodster never tries here. It’s in bits of scenarios and pieces of dialogue scattered throughout, but Hollywood Ending is darn funny when it can be. Of particular help is a cast that’s actively trying not to let their respective performances fall into broad stereotypes. Allen’s Val is another story, but Leoni’s Ellie is headstrong and affectionate, Williams is a likably oafish studio boss, and as Val’s agent, Mark Rydell is charmingly sneaky but supportive. It might’ve been at the cost of some biting observations on how Tinseltown works, but you get the impression that Allen likes his characters, which you just don’t see much in flicks like this.

I’m sure half of why I dug Hollywood Ending back in the day was because it was one of the first times I actually got to see a Woody Allen movie on the big screen. Some references and moments still make me smile (such as how Val’s film is ultimately received), but as an Allen picture and as a comedy on its own, there’s just not enough juicy material to sustain one’s interest beyond these brief moments. All in all, Hollywood Ending can’t decide between being a love note to the movie biz or being a “Dear John” letter.

“Wonder Woman” (1974)

"Wonder Woman" poster


You really can’t stress enough how great Lynda Carter was as Wonder Woman. In appearance and personality, she truly brought William Moulton Marston’s superheroine to life and stands as one of the best match-ups of live performer to comic book counterpart in history. So thank Hera that it was her version of the character that took off and not the one played by Cathy Lee Crosby in a 1974 Wonder Woman TV pilot. In testing the waters to see how viewers would accept the property a year before Carter would swing the famous lasso, this Wonder Woman plays it safe and suffers for it, supplying a dreary spy game that’s the very antithesis of “super.”

A former athlete herself, Crosby at least has the build to combat evil as the star-spangled Wonder Woman, though her origins have been tweaked here. She still hails from an Amazonian island paradise, but when she’s compelled to join modern society, it’s to immediately go working for Uncle Sam. Under dapper g-man Steve Trevor (Kaz Garas), “Diana Prince” is a secret agent who’s dispatched when the going gets particularly tough. That happens when mystery man Abner Smith (Ricardo Montalban) gets his hands on some secret code books that could endanger the lives of numerous government operatives. Armed with explosive bracelets, gymnastics training, and a snazzy jumpsuit, Diana/Wonder Woman is on the case, putting herself on the line in service of the red, white, and blue.

Seeing as how it features a significantly de-powered depiction of the character, you’d think that Wonder Woman veered dramatically from the source material. That’s not entirely true, for in the years preceding this pilot, DC’s comics did show us a Wonder Woman who was less superhuman and more adept at martial arts than anything else. In that respect, this vehicle wasn’t a bad way to introduce Diana to a viewing public, keeping effects costs low and focusing on espionage-based adventures. But there’s a reason she was a hit on the printed page, and it wasn’t because kids loved seeing her sip champagne and trade weak bon mots with leering henchmen. Wonder Woman’s at her best when her full strength is on display, and when you take that away to send her sneaking after donkeys in a Wild West ghost town, you defeat the purpose of giving her a show to begin with.

It was a dark time before Richard Donner got heroes right with 1978’s Superman, and Wonder Woman is no exception. The film just can’t work up any genuine excitement about itself, siccing Diana after generic bad guys and so condensing her beginnings that there’s no reason for her to hang around in our world at all. We just sleepwalk through her hunt for Montalban’s antagonist, who’s suave and gentlemanly to the point of coming across as pretty dense. Crosby tries her best and, if nothing else, at least looks like she can handle herself in a scrape. Her updated costume isn’t too shabby, and during the flick’s many, many inactive lulls, there’s still a funky ’70s soundtrack to tide us over. But everything else about the pilot is so basic and boring, from Wonder Woman’s boilerplate mission to the drowsy heroics she employs to save the day.

1974’s Wonder Woman is a curio whose only worth is to show superhero fans how far the genre has come on film since its release. Devoid of even any nuttiness to liven up the proceedings, it’s a drawn-out slog that makes you appreciate how much the Carter show embraced the fantastic. I can think of worse comic-based capers, but this Wonder Woman is best left in obscurity’s iron grip.

“The Phantom of Crestwood” (1932)

"The Phantom of Crestwood" poster


Before Marvel introduced a shared continuity amongst its various films, and before Southland Tales tried…whatever that was supposed to be, there was The Phantom of Crestwood. It was quite the multi-media event in its time, beginning as a suspenseful radio serial that ended on a cliffhanger — one that would only be answered in a conveniently-timed RKO feature. Listeners who submitted the best potential ideas on how the mystery could unfold were even offered cash prizes. But eighty years later and stripped of all traces of hype, does The Phantom of Crestwood hold up as its own tale? The answer, my fellow vintage chiller buffs, is a dark and stormy “yes.”

Don’t be fooled by Jenny Wren (Karen Morley) and her innocent looks. Beneath those big eyes lies the soul of a stone-cold seductress, a gal who, as our story begins, has gathered some previous lovers at an Old Dark House for one last bombshell. Jenny plans on retiring into a life of luxury, and to fund her ride into the sunset, she’s demanded that her one-time paramours fork over $100 grand. But someone would rather not be parted from their riches, as Jenny doesn’t make it through the night before she gets a dart to the noggin. Luckily, an unlikely detective shows up in Gary Curtis (Ricardo Cortez), a crook who was hired to tail Jenny and takes charge of finding her killer before the finger gets put on him.

My greatest worry going into The Phantom of Crestwood was how lost I might feel. Forget all the media hoopla covering up a potential stinker, what about someone like me watching it decades removed from relevance and without a radio show to prep me? Fortunately, The Phantom of Crestwood assured me that what background I missed either wasn’t much or was condensed into the script. It’s your atypical drawing room mystery, getting us quickly acquainted with the requisite suspects who all have a motive and foreboding mansion that does spooky stuff at all the right times. There’s a familiar feel to the picture, though not so much so as to make Jenny’s murder a breeze to solve or hunting for the culprit any less fraught with peril and thrills.

True, The Phantom of Crestwood has probably shed much of its pulse-pounding luster over the years. It’s hard for modern viewers to get into the “guy patiently interrogates six people for ninety minutes” murder mystery formula, unless it was part of their cinematic diet whilst growing up. But it just so happens that I’m among the latter ranks, and while I’ll forgive some folks for yawning through sections of The Phantom of Crestwood, I was hooked from the first crash of thunder. The pacing was solid, Morley played bad girl Jenny to great effect, and I enjoyed Cortez’ turn as the film’s morally-ambiguous amateur sleuth. But you could almost say that the mansion is the real star, what with its secret passageways, crumbling cliffs, and an eerie, glowing death mask that’s ripe for the creeping.

Overshadowed throughout the years by famous genre icons like Charlie Chan and Sherlock Holmes, The Phantom of Crestwood has been dusted off by the Warner Archive gang for a new generation’s enjoyment. Stiff as some portions may be, the movie is anything but hokey, maintaining a low-key but tense tempo from the first shot to the final reveal. If you like yourself a good old-fashioned whodunit, then The Phantom of Crestwood is just the riddle to crack.

“Bad Channels” (1992)

"Bad Channels" poster


I don’t know what makes less sense: Charles Band’s fascination with all things tiny, or the busy career he’s built upon it for three decades. It’s not even that the indie horror mogul’s output is in any way notorious; his best productions are tolerable, his worst are really dull, and none have really achieved “so stupid, it’s fun” status. But props to the Full Moon flick Bad Channels for trying something a little different and using a skimpy budget to its advantage. It’s ultimately still boring sci-fi slop, but if you’ve had your fill of stop-motion puppets, it’s not the worst breather to pop in.

Something wicked is about to hit the airwaves at radio station KDUL (har, har). As shock jock Dan O’Dare (Paul Hipp) assaults listeners with nonstop polka, a UFO lands and embarks on a mission to, what else, abduct Earth chicks. A goofy-ass alien and his annoying robot buddy invade the studio, using the controls to zero in on the town hotties and shrink them down for the trip back home. But it’s going to take more than one intergalactic creep and some nasty green fungus to stop Dan from taking back his booth — especially when the reporter (Martha Quinn) he’s crushing on becomes a target.

Bringing actors instead of animatronics down to size is about as innovative as Bad Channels gets. Its “War of the Worlds”-inspired story of broadcasting an alien takeover is explored weakly, lest you consider watching Diet Howard Stern whine about a big doofy monster playing around with buttons as slam-bang entertainment. The acting blows, outlandish violence is almost non-existent, and the inherent cheapness that’s indicative of anything with the Full Moon logo on it is just as obvious here (though this one doesn’t look as Europe-y as its brothers). The movie couldn’t even be bothered to drum up a badass villain, instead dropping a huge pile of purple popcorn on top of the Mandroid suit.

So how does it come to pass that Bad Channels is not only not that bad but even a teensy bit fun, too? To start, unlike most of Band’s fare, it’s a stand-alone flick, so there’s no feeling of forcing a franchise out of thin air (okay, so there’s the Dollman cameo, but that’s it). Plus, while Hipp tries too hard to pretend that he’s in a legitimately scary movie, the mood is surprisingly light and rowdy. Bad Channels was made to be a party flick, with intentionally broad, silly gags and a nicely ecelctic soundtrack. The film essentially stops for a music video break whenever a woman gets snatched up, but with the tunes ranging from metal ballads to grunge jams, it’s never the same padded plot diversion twice.

But when the last plasticine creature has been blown to smithereens, Bad Channels is still kind of a crummy movie. It’s unexciting more than it’s genuinely lively, and — though I hate harping on this again — there is no alternate dimension in which that monster would have worked without a complete overhaul. Still, it’s better that Bad Channels at least try for a good time instead of giving up and pressing on with a B-grade dirge.

“Cosmopolis” (2012)

"Cosmopolis" poster


David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis will rub viewers in various wrong ways, not the least of which involves its protagonist being one of the silver screen’s most emotionally barren pricks. But it’s not out of the question to love a film centered around a despicable cast of characters — where would we be if Michael Corleone was a total saint, or if Tony Montana decided to clean up his act? So it goes that Cosmopolis trails a certified douchemobile for a couple of hours, and the self-destructive choices he makes couldn’t be more weird or fascinating.

Robert Pattinson fills the well-buffed shoes of Eric Packer, a young mogul who’s made a fortune in a trade that’s never fully explained to us. What’s important is that Eric has the dough to buy out God ten times over and the power to assemble a perpetual stream of yes men. From his stretch limo/base of operations, he thrives in a state of paranoid delusion, keeping obsessive tabs on his company’s security and not letting congested traffic prevent him from getting a haircut he doesn’t even really need. But on this day, the amount of sway Eric thinks he has over the market and those around him is put to the test. Forces are converging to knock Eric’s well-balanced world out of whack, and it’s how our increasingly unhinged Wall Street warrior reacts that will decide how much of an empire he has left come tomorrow.

Cosmopolis will be as difficult for Pattinson’s swooning herds of Twilight groupies to absorb as it will be for those familiar with the offbeat webs Cronenberg regularly weaves. His world (based on Don DeLillo’s novel) is one in which nothing is straightforward, in which the dialogue consists of cryptic riddles and all characters embody some degree of stiff unreality. Will it drive you batty? Most likely. Does it serve a purpose? Yeah, but other pictures have been more subdued with or played up similar subject matter to greater effect. But what this style does accomplish is making Cosmopolis harder to pin down and, in turn, more interesting to watch. With everyone you see so deluded and self-assured in their own ways, who knows what will come to pass when the rug is slowly tugged away under them.

Eric’s road trip of excess and emptiness turns up appearances by a number of familiar faces. Most last but a single fleeting scene, but impressions are left, especially by Juliette Binoche as Eric’s art guru (and one of many sexual trysts), Samantha Morton as a financial theoretician, and Mathieu Amalric as an “assassin” whose weapon of choice is a pie (just roll with it). Each of these pit stops nudges Eric closer to the edge, although our story make the compelling argument that he really is asking for it. Enter Pattinson, whom I’ve used and will likely employ as a punching bag in the future, but who does impressive work in burying what makes Eric tick beneath a vain veneer. On the outset, he’s a typical upper-class jackhole just daring for the fates to pay him back for his total lack of humanity…until you realize that’s precisely what he wants. I won’t say much, except that what transpires is no regular power trip but the most spectacularly bizarre cry for help you’ve ever seen.

Cosmopolis won’t be an easy watch, but the nice, long period of reflection you’ll need when it’s over will do you wonders. Beneath the loopy images on which Cronenberg can be depended to provide are loads of social subtext to chew on, like a surrealist adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis work. Shallow sex, giant rats, and all, Cosmopolis has the content to support a production as unconventional as the one that Cronenberg proudly presents.