Chinatown (1974, Roman Polanski)

The most brightly-lit and also most pessimistic noir shown in Emory’s series. Nicholson is very good at acting natural, which he does too seldom, and John Huston is haunting as the villain, a human monster in broad daylight. I remember Faye Dunaway as being hysterical in this, but apparently I was only recalling the “she’s my daughter AND my sister” scene. Polanski himself plays a dwarf thug who cuts Jack’s nose open near the beginning of the investigation, forcing Jack to wear facial bandages through most of the movie.

Huston plays Dunaway’s father – he and her husband Mulwray ran the water department for years before selling it to the city, and now Huston is running a water/real estate conspiracy, stealing water from farmers and dumping it into the river. Jack is a nobody detective taking pictures of cheating husbands when he’s used as a pawn in Huston’s schemes to discredit his former partner and recover his grand/daughter – though Jack is plenty smart enough to keep up with the plot. He almost gets ahead, too, but loses his evidence against Huston, and loses Dunaway when the cops shoot her through the head.

Nominated for all the oscars, but really, what chance have you got against the likes of Godfather 2, The Towering Inferno, Earthquake and Art Carney?

Buy from Amazon:
Chinatown DVD

Roger Corman double-feature

A Bucket of Blood (1959)

“You’re just a simple little farmboy and the rest of us are all sophisticated beatniks.”

I’m always afraid of Roger Corman movies because I figure they’ll be awful, Ed Wood-style catastrophes. But after I reminded myself that he made the great X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes, I rented these two. Both were great, quick and cheap, but very fun and full of weird humor, not the dull, cardboardy type of cheap movies MST3K always mocked (though the show did feature four Corman movies, all from ’57 and earlier). It was only Corman’s sixth year in the movie business, and the twenty-third movie he directed. Shot in five days, and entirely not bad.

Alice and Walter:

Joe Dante fave Dick Miller, in his only starring role, is slightly creepy and socially inept but eager waiter Walter at a super-hip cafe populated by some hammy characters. I was glad to learn that the songs and clothes and beat poetry were intended as exaggerated parodies of the fashions of the time, since I found it all hilarious. Especially good were cafe boss Leonard, who does a nice horrified stagger when he first discovers Walter’s secret, and Maxwell (Bruno VeSota, vet of sixteen Corman pictures) the beardy ultra-pretentious king poet.

Walter accidentally kills his cat (while trying to save it), then an undercover cop trying to bust oblivious Walter for heroin possession (in crazed self-defense), then covers them in clay and is celebrated by the locals for his lifelike “sculptures.”

Walter vs. the undercover cop:

Walter wins:

Determined to stay famous, he starts killing people on purpose – starting with Alice (Judy Bamber of The Atomic Brain), a Marilyn-looking hottie who’s a total bitch to Walter, yet eagerly agrees to pose nude for his next sculpture. Then he murders a random dude with a table saw (“What’s that you got in the box?,” says Leonard to Walter, who is carrying a man’s head in a box – an early influence on Se7en?). Finally he’s given an art show by Leonard – I’m not clear how his plan to keep Walter from killing more people was supposed to work out – and discovered, he chases his crush Carla (Barboura Morris of Wasp Woman and The Trip) into the night until the voices in his head drive him to suicide.

Leonard finds out what’s in the box:

“I suppose he would have called it ‘hanging man’… his greatest work.”

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Little Shop of Horrors (1960)

“Please don’t damage the horticulturalist.”

Opens with a pan across a comic strip drawing and a skid-row detective voiceover. The main flaw with this version versus the musical is that Seymour (Jonathan Haze of Gunslinger and Swamp Women) and Audrey (Mrs. Futterman in the Gremlins movies) are less cute and more annoying. Audrey II’s voice is good but the plant prop and puppeteering are pathetic. But the script is good, and as with Bucket of Blood it’s nice that it’s a comedy instead of a sadly self-serious horror about a man-eating plant.

I did like Mr. Mushnick, New Yorker Mel Welles playing a bearded eastern-europe type. Also good to see Dick Miller again – he’s a regular customer who eats flowers (nicely contrasted with the flower who eats people). The dentist (who is not dating Audrey) is a disappointingly regular looking guy. As the VHS box used to proudly proclaim (“Starring Jack Nicholson”), Jack plays the Bill Murray role, a masochistic patient with two minutes’ worth of groan-worthy dialogue.

As in Bucket of Blood, the first person killed is undercover police (dressed as a railway bum for reasons unknown), so a pair of Dragnet-parody cops keep hanging out at the flower shop, along with two giddy girls who want flowers for a parade float and a woman who wants to award Seymour with a prize for Audrey II. Similar ending to the other movie, really – wimpy guy who’s gained celebrity by killing people in secret gets found out, nighttime chase outdoors leads back to a familiar location where he dies (in this case, eaten by plant).

I didn’t get any Little Shop screenshots, so here’s the cast of Bucket of Blood one more time:

Both movies were written by Charles B. Griffith, later director of the Ron Howard-starring clutch-popping classic Eat My Dust. Netflix disc included Rifftrax commentary, which didn’t work too well since the movie was already a comedy, resorting to rude swipes at the low-budget production.

Monte Hellman double-feature

The Shooting (1967)

Awesome, mysterious western. Performances are understated except by Will Hutchins, who maybe tries too hard to be the stupid one, and Millie Perkins, who maybe tries too hard to be the unknowable badass.

Your comic relief: Hutchins of Merrill’s Marauders
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Will is hanging out with friend Leland when Leland is shot to death by offscreen persons unknown. Later on, Warren “GTO” Oates rides up looking for Leland, and both of ‘em get surprised by Millie, who hires ‘em to come with her.

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The movie never explicitly tells us that she’s looking for revenge on Warren’s evil twin brother and that the men are hired to help track him, and if it had told us it probably wouldn’t enjoy the same cult success. All the carefully hidden information keeps things exciting.

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Fastest-gun-in-the-west Jack Nicholson trails them unseen for a long time, then rides openly with ‘em after he’s discovered, just being a huge jerk. Starts to become clear that he and Millie are obsessed with something, and Warren and Will probably won’t make it home… then suddenly they’re hot on the trail of the brother, and a subliminal shootout leaves us wondering what just happened.

Kind of a haunting movie, well paced and shot by reliably weird cinematographer Gregory Sandor (Forbidden Zone, De Palma’s Sisters).

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Ride in the Whirlwind (1965)

If you think about their relative effectiveness and beauty and straightforwardness of plot, this movie would seem like the cheapie add-on flick of the two (Hellman and Nicholson went into the desert to shoot a movie and exec-producer Roger Corman said “while you’re out there, why not shoot two movies”). But this one has more actors, more gunshots and more buildings burning down, so it was intended to be the real picture, and cult-classic The Shooting was the “aw hell, as long as we’re here” picture. Funny how things work out.

One of Harry Dean’s first credited movie roles:
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Three plain ol’ regular-guy cowhands, not heroes or great gunfighters or brilliant problem-solvers, just plain-damn-ol’ guys, run into some bad dudes who just robbed a stagecoach. The bad dudes (led by eyepatch-sporting Harry Dean Stanton) concoct a story which our men see right through, but both decide to tolerate each other for the night. But oops, lawmen catch up with the baddies and assault their shack hideout assuming our fellas are part of the gang. Otis catches a bullet, so the other two, Vern (chewy Cameron Mitchell, then of Hell and High Water and House of Bamboo, later in Space Mutiny) and Wes (our writer Jack Nicholson, remarkably good at playing a regular guy) flee to the hills.

Otis (the good guy who gets killed) is played by the writer of sci-fi crap classic The Space Children.
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The hills and the shack both prove hard to escape. Finally the shack is burned down, and the surviving criminals are hanged. Meanwhile, after some close calls with bullets and cliffs, our two guys find a ranch house populated by stump-choppin’ routine-livin’ dad George Mitchell (of Face of the Screaming Werewolf), his barely-there wife, and their daughter, 27-playing-18 Millie Perkins. Our guys hold ‘em hostage planning to wait out the lawmen, trying not to offend or do harm while remaining threatening enough to be effective.

Rupert Crosse is credited as “indian joe” but I’m not so sure he’s Indian:
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This is the best part of the movie, the tense waiting, since all the chases and gunfights are all pretty routine. Checkers are played, the horse stable is visited, and the family is told that our guys are gonna have to steal two horses to get away. When the lawman comes a-calling, George Mitchell tries to get sneaky, resulting in a final shootout which kills Mitchells George and Cameron (no relation?) and leaves Jack riding away (not into the whirlwind; there is no whirlwind).

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The Departed (2006, Martin Scorsese)

Arrrrgh, I should’ve known better than to trust this movie. A remake with insufficient imagination to justify its existence. A simple thriller with a lot of very good performances, that’s all. I’m probably wrong and it’s probably a Great Film, but I’m gonna go with my gut until proven wrong.

Let’s go: Martin Sheen is the police chief and Leo DiCaprio is his mole. Jack Nicholson is the ganglord and Matt Damon is his mole. Vera Farmiga is the psychiatrist girlfriend. Alec Baldwin is another police guy, and Marky Mark is Sheen’s assistant, one of Scorsese’s new characters.

So what’s different? The relationships with Vera are more developed – she’s marrying Matt and having an affair with Leo. Marky speaks for Sheen, spitting a stream of profanities at anyone in front of him. He kills Matt in the final scene as revenge for Sheen’s death. Most importantly, little things like taking the cellphone out of the evidence bag when Matt first calls Leo and having no recording gear in Leo’s arm cast when the gangsters bust it. Changes for the sake of changing things, removing memorable details that worked well in the original. I like the bit with the psychiatrist and the Marky Mark character – both help justify the longer running time of the remake – but they’ve stripped Leo’s close relationship with the cop boss, making the falling death from the building a lot less meaningful (except through Marky’s revenge bit). I especially don’t get that. I missed Chris Doyle’s cinematography and didn’t appreciate much of the music (especially the Comfortably Numb remake). The move to Boston worked well at least. A perfectly fine movie as long as I hadn’t loved the original. It’s my own fault that I did, I guess.