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Scarecrow Video Suggestions

Seattle's Scarecrow Video staff offers weekly, relevant movie-rental recommendations.

December 22, 2011 at 6:10 AM

Scarecrow Video recommendations for 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'

There are a lot of films coming out in the next week or so. The holiday week is unusually packed, with releases of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," "The Adventures of Tintin," "We Bought a Zoo," (which would be a better title with a question mark at the end...We Bought a Zoo?), "A Dangerous Method," "War Horse," and the film currently expected to be the Oscar frontrunner, "The Artist." That's a lot to pick from, so of course we're going to recommend -- in this final edition of "Scarecrow Recommends" -- some titles related to the dark, cerebral period spy drama starring a bunch of jowly old British gents.

John Le Carre's novel "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" was previously adapted for British TV as a six-hour miniseries in 1979. It starred Alec Guinness as master spy George Smiley, who's trying to reveal the identity of a mole in the upper echelons of British intelligence. Now Tomas Alfredson, director of the great Swedish vampire film "Let the Right One In," has readapted it for the cinema, starring Gary Oldman in the Smiley role. It's a fantastic film, less a spy drama than a character piece about getting older and reconciling with one's past.

There are two sequel novels to "Tinker," one of which was also made into a miniseries, again starring Guinness. Smiley's People finds the titular spymaster called out of retirement (this happens a lot) to investigate a Soviet general who may be connected to Smiley's nemesis, the mysterious Soviet spy Karla. Both of these miniseries are absorbing, complicated and deliberately paced. These stories are far from the action-adventure spy stories we're used to from Bond or Bourne, but they're just as exciting.

A few other of Le Carre's novels have also been filmed. 1965's "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold," directed by Martin Ritt and starring Richard Burton, is an especially bleak thriller about an ex-British agent who's brought into a plan to fake his defection to the Soviet Union in order to discredit a KGB agent. Of course, things are never what they seem in films like this. Burton gives one of his best performances as an alcoholic, ego-driven man apparently at the end of his rope, a far reach from the confident, capable superspies the movies usually give us.

Perhaps the most obscure (or at least forgotten) film based on one of Le Carre's novels is 1990's "The Russia House." Sean Connery stars as a London-based book publisher who stumbles upon a Soviet scientist who wants to defect and provide the West with the USSR's nuclear secrets. The British government enlists Connery in a plan to use the scientist's lover (Michelle Pfeiffer) as bait to draw him out and verify the information he's offering. Of course Connery and Pfeiffer fall for each other and, realizing that they're merely pawns in this whole scheme, have to play both sides against one another. There's some particularly gorgeous location footage, as the film was shot in Moscow. This is a quiet, romantic drama rather than a thriller, and an entirely unique (although not entirely successful) film.

Hope you all have enjoyed these recommendations over the last couple of years! Happy Holidays from Scarecrow Video!

December 15, 2011 at 6:07 AM

Scarecrow Video recommendations for 'Sherlock Holmes 2'

I honestly don't remember if I wrote one of these columns for the "original" installment of the new Sherlock Holmes series of films. That film only came out two years ago, which speaks to just how terrible my memory is. In any case, this week Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law return as Holmes and Watson in the sequel, subtitled A Game of Shadows. Apparently our villain this time around is the legendary Professor Moriarty, and it involves the World's Greatest Detective putting on a dress a la Bugs Bunny vs. the Tasmanian Devil.

So here are our picks for the best previous adaptations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's most famous creation.

First there's The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, from 1976. Robert Duvall plays Watson, who lures his friend and mentor Holmes (the great Nicol Williamson) to Vienna, where he'll be treated by Sigmund Freud (Alan Arkin) for his crippling addiction to cocaine. Apparently the drug has been causing Holmes to believe that his brother Mycroft's former tutor, one Professor Moriarty (Sir Laurence Olivier), is also a criminal mastermind. This was based on a novel by Nicolas Meyer, who also wrote and directed Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan as well as that weird Time After Time film, the one where H.G. Wells chases Jack the Ripper to '70s San Francisco. More of a comedy-adventure than a mystery, Williamson is my favorite screen Holmes.

Maybe I've recommended it before, but you have to check out 1988's Without A Clue, a more completely comedic spin on the character. In this version, Watson (Sir Ben Kingsley) is the real brains of the operation. Reasoning that nobody would accept him as a brilliant eccentric, he hires a blundering idiot of a drunken actor (Sir Michael Caine) to pretend to be his creation, Sherlock Holmes. I could watch these two actors shout at each other all day, but sadly this movie only runs about an hour and 40 minutes. Still, an overlooked gem.

Then there's Zero Effect, another film I'm sure has appeared here before. It stars Bill Pullman as Daryl Zero, the world's greatest detective. Unfortunately, Zero is a complete basket case. Though a brilliant detective, he's totally unable to function in regular society (unless he's on the case), not to mention paranoid and potentially violent. His poor assistant Steve (Ben Stiller, before he was super famous) is stuck trailing along, trying vainly to keep up with this madman. They find themselves embroiled in a blackmail case. Loosely based on the Holmes story "A Scandal In Bohemia", which features Holmes falling in love with a lady con artist, this is a great little indie film from the late '90s. Shot and set in beautiful Portland, Oregon, by the way.

Oh, and don't forget the new BBC adaptation "Sherlock." It's updated to modern times and stars a gentleman named Benedict Cumberbatch, which is the coolest name ever.

Till next week!

December 8, 2011 at 5:53 AM

Scarecrow Video recommendations for 'New Year's Eve'

First "Love, Actually", then "Valentine's Day", and now this week we have Garry Marshall's follow-up, "New Year's Eve". It seems folks just can't get enough of expensive Hollywood movies featuring a cast of beautiful famous people falling in holiday-based love. As a snooty video store clerk, it's actually in my job description to take all the fun out of that and recommend some "similar" movies you might try instead.

One of the great ensemble comedies in Hollywood history would have to be the legendary (and legendarily silly) 1963 epic "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World", which feels like it stars every famous comedian who'd ever been heard of at that time (for those under 30, you may have heard of exactly none of them). To list them all would take up the rest of this article. But they're all playing a bunch of desperate morons on a cross-country hunt for a cache of stolen money. It's three hours packed with cameos, crazy stunts, corny one-liners and ridiculous subplots.

Or you could go in the completely opposite direction with the original 1972 "The Poseidon Adventure", which features the obligatory dazzling cast of stars, except instead of falling in love, they're generally falling to their grisly deaths after the luxury cruise liner upon which they're ringing in the new year capsizes. Gene Hackman as a foul-mouthed preacher has to lead everyone to safety while trying to keep Shelley Winters from completely falling to pieces. This is one of the all time great disaster movies.

But my favorite New Year's Eve title is 1995's "Strange Days", written by James Cameron and directed by Kathryn Bigelow (she also won the Best Director Oscar a couple years back for "The Hurt Locker"). This intense, imaginative thriller takes place on the last day of the year 1999, making it one of the most interesting and awkwardly dated hyperviolent science-fiction mystery action films you'll ever see. Let that last sentence sink in for a second. Anyway, Ralph Fiennes stars as an ex-cop who stumbles into a conspiracy involving a murdered rap star, corrupt cops, evil record company shills and, of course, a device that can record and play back people's every waking experience. This is exactly the kind of bizarro masterpiece that instantly gets overlooked and people like me spend the rest of their lives telling you about.

We'll be back next week!

December 1, 2011 at 5:49 AM

Scarecrow Video recommendations for 'Empire of Silver'

Filmmaking in China has boomed since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong. The HK film industry has always been one of the largest and most prolific in the world. Americans probably think primarily of martial arts films when they think of Chinese or HK cinema, but, much like Hollywood, the industry produces pretty much every conceivable kind of film. But crime films and period epics are certainly staples, sort of like westerns and cop movies are over here.

This week there's a screening of one of those sweeping historical dramas, the 2009 film "Empire of Silver." It's set during the Boxer rebellion and concerns a young man (Aaron Kwok) who must reluctantly take over his clan's silver-hoarding operation.

That same period is also the setting for Nicholas Ray's 1963 film "55 Days at Peking," starring Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner as foreigners trapped during the siege of the titular city by the Boxers. This one is of interest, at least in this case, because it's tacit acceptance of some level of foreign rule in China is exactly the sort of thing modern Chinese films would never condone. These days, Heston and David Niven (who plays a soldier) would be the bad guys. This was also director Ray's final film (and the last film screened at the White House by President Kennedy!).

Or you could try "Bloody Avengers," one of my favorites about the subject, from 1976. Directed by Chang Cheh, this is a more typical historical action film from the Shaw Brothers production studio. It's about three young men, eager to fight the foreign devils, who join up with the Boxers after being tricked into thinking they will be made impervious to bullets. It's not the most historically accurate picture but it does paint a fascinating picture of what a mainstream Chinese audience would have thought of this particular period in their past.

Shaw Studios went back to this well again in 1981, with "Legendary Weapons of China." This one is about a clan leader targeted for assassination by the Boxers and the ruling Empress Dowager after he refuses to dupe his men into believing in the whole "impervious to bullets" thing that came up in Bloody Avengers. This one's notable for having a bit of a comedic side, due a goofy mistaken-identity subplot, and it also features crazy martial arts weapons like "Double Tiger Hook Swords" and "Three-section Chain Whip." Those are even cooler than they sound.

We'll be back next week!

November 22, 2011 at 10:01 AM

Scarecrow Video recommendations for 'The Muppets'

How many times will the word "Muppet" appear in the following article?

Wow, has it really been 12 years since the last theatrically released Muppet movie? Actually, with the exception of the made-for-TV "The Muppets' Wizard of Oz," there hasn't been a Muppet film at all since 1999's "Muppets From Space." This week sees the unveiling of the creatively titled "The Muppets," which finds Jim Henson's lasting legacy entrusted to comedian Jason Segel and director James Bobin (incongruously, perhaps, most well-know for his work on "Da Ali G Show" and, more appropriately, "Flight of the Conchords").

Anyway, this new film promises a return to the spirit of the original The Muppet Show and 1979 film "The Muppet Movie" with a "let's put on a show"-style story involving Kermit and the gang trying to save the old Muppet theater from a greedy oil baron.

Personally, aside from the aforementioned and underrated "Muppets From Space," my favorite entry in the franchise is 1981's "The Great Muppet Caper." It's sort of the perfect kids movie for grownups, what with its retrofitted heist plot and a hilarious turn by Charles Grodin as the villain. It's also a little less sappy than other entries, which sits well with me as I like my Muppets a little less kid-friendly. But Henson's creations weren't limited to Kermit and Piggy

One largely forgotten bit of Muppet history is the 1988 TV series The Storyteller. It stars John Hurt as the titular character, an old man who spins various old European folk tales, each brought to life by Henson's legendary creature shop. The series ran for a brief nine episodes. Almost all were written by the late Anthony Minghella, who famously directed "The English Patient," and his simple but lyrical style is all over the show. There was a follow-up the next year, entitled "The Storyteller: The Greek Myths," which replaced Hurt with future Dumbledore Michael Gambon. It's long out of print, but you can of course find it at Scarecrow.

Henson of course was instrumental in the creation of Sesame Street as well, and one of my favorite bits of Sesame esoterica is 1983's "Big Bird in Japan," which ... well, I probably don't need to explain what it's about. As a child I was (and I remain) fascinated with Japanese culture, and so seeing Bird and Barkley (a favorite Muppet of mine) traipsing around that beautiful country endlessly amused me. There's a fair bit of slapstick, but the culture-clash humor is light and earnest, and the story even takes a few surreally dark turns towards the end. Maybe not for everyone, but you don't need to have a kid in the house in order to enjoy it.

Now if only we can get the old "Muppet Babies" cartoons released on DVD. We'll be back next week!

November 17, 2011 at 5:44 AM

Scarecrow Video recommendations for 'Breaking Dawn'

Fun fact: as far as I know, I'm the only Scarecrow Video employee to have watched all three previous "Twilight" films. I even enjoyed two of them. And before you say anything, no, I wasn't forced to watch them by my girlfriend; she refused even to be in the same room when they were on.

For those who haven't heard, the "Twilight" series is about a teenage girl who falls in love with a 110-year-old man who, because he is an immortal vampire, has been going to high school over and over again since before the Great Depression. This reminds me of Matthew McConaughey's character in "Dazed and Confused," who continues to troll for high school girls well into his 20's because, as he says, "I keep gettin' older ... they stay the same age."

But I digress. This last film has been cloven in twain, certainly for purely artistic reasons. The first part of the final installment in the "Twilight Saga" is called "Breaking Dawn." Part one appears in theaters this weekend, with the second half coming next summer. If you liked it, here are some other romance-tinged vampire films to seek out.

First there's 1973's "Ganja & Hess," starring Duane Jones from the original "Night of the Living Dead" as an archaeologist who becomes a vampire after his crazy assistant stabs him with an ancient dagger. When the assistant's wife comes looking for him (he committed suicide after the attack), Jones begins to fall in love with her. This is a very unusual vampire film; in fact the word is never used at all. It's also deliberately very disjointed, both visually and narratively, in keeping with its main story of a man who feels himself both physically and psychologically divided.

In the mid-'90s, especially given the success of Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles novels and Neil Jordan's film of "Interview with the Vampire", you found a lot of gritty indie vampire movies. In 1994 there was "Nadja" and in '95 we had "The Addiction" and "Habit." All three of these films are about disaffected hipster New Yorkers who find themselves with a thirst for blood. We wanted to pick just one to recommend, but then we realized they're all sort of the same movie.

But if you're a "Twilight" fan, maybe you want something a little less serious. Might we recommend 1979's "Love at First Bite"? George Hamilton stars as the legendary Count Dracula, evicted from his home in Transylvania and forced to come to the Big Apple to find love. Let's just say this has a scene in which Dracula and Susan St. James hit the disco floor to "I Love the Night Life" and leave it at that.

We'll be back next week!

November 10, 2011 at 6:22 AM

Scarecrow Video recommendations for 'J. Edgar'

Biopics have a tendency to run together; like romantic comedies, there are a few beats every one seems to hit. The troubled relationship with a parent, a secret addiction or sexual hangup, and usually a failed romance. When you're tied to history it can be difficult to wring a satisfying narrative out of a real person's story. But that doesn't stop Hollywood from cranking out a few new high-profile biographies every year, usually around Oscar season.

This week sees the release of Clint Eastwood's latest film, "J. Edgar," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, of course a biography of the notorious founder of the FBI. Rather than suggest other biopics, we thought we'd bring you some other films that dramatize (and in some cases heavily fictionalize) the history of the Bureau.

First there's 1959's "The FBI Story." Hoover himself had a hand in making this; he was granted approval over almost every aspect of the film's production. It stars Jimmy Stewart as a loyal FBI agent who, while delivering a lecture, recounts his career. The film depicts the Bureau's exploits against the Klan, organized crime, and even the occasional Nazi. Completely whitewashed due to Hoover's insistence that his agency be portrayed as eternally just and squeaky clean, much of the story is apocryphal, but this is nonetheless an entertaining crime picture.

Almost completely in the other direction, we have 1977's "The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover," a sort of nasty tell-all version of Hoover's life. Written and directed by exploitation legend Larry Cohen, the film portrays Hoover as a media savvy liar, a bigot and misogynist, an extortionist and a power-mad control freak, all stemming from his supposed closeted homosexuality. In some ways this falls into the b-movie grindhouse category: most of what makes the film exciting is its hefty dose of innuendo and sleaze, and it's certainly not politically correct. But as a rundown of the worst of what history has lead us to believe about Hoover, it makes a bizarre counterpoint to Eastwood's film.

Last but not least there's the much more recent "Public Enemies." Ostensibly a biopic on notorious criminal John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), this film is more accurately an investigation of the socioeconomic conditions that both drove a criminal like Dillinger and allowed him to flourish as well as those that led to the creation of the FBI and the development of its tactics. Directed by the great Michael Mann, this is a really spectacular realization of a piece of American history, and the level of period detail is staggering (some locations were the same ones occupied by the real subjects themselves. Depp is even wearing Dillinger's suits). If you're expecting a straightforward cops and robbers film, this isn't quite it, but it is a marvelous examination of American mythmaking.

We'll be back next week!

November 3, 2011 at 6:00 AM

Scarecrow Video recommendations for 'Tower Heist

Everybody likes a good caper movie. The best ones have a rare, almost alchemical combination of our fascination with crime, the ever popular underdog story, and our love of twisty, complicated plots. Certainly the modern paradigm for this would be the "Ocean's" series ("Ocean's Twelve" being both the best entry and the most inexplicably disliked).

This weekend we get "Tower Heist," from "director" Brett Ratner. Ben Stiller leads a big ensemble cast (including Casey Affleck, Gadbourey Sidibe and Matthew Broderick); they're the employees of a luxury Manhattan apartment high-rise, who discover their savings and pensions have been drained by the Madoff-like scoundrel in the penthouse (Alan Alda). Stiller enlists a childhood acquaintance-turned-criminal (Eddie Murphy) to help even the odds.

So how about some other good heist films? Going all the way back to 1955, there's "Rififi," a French film from the great Jules Dassin. The plot's pretty straightforward: an aging gangster is released from prison, and he gets a few of his buddies together for one last score. The centerpiece of the film is the nearly half-hour long burglary sequence, presented with no music or dialogue.

From 1972, there's "The Hot Rock," starring Robert Redford and directed by the great Peter Yates (who also directed "Bullitt"). Based on a novel by Donald E. Westlake, it features Redford as a career criminal who gets roped into a jewel heist by his brother-in-law. This film is more of a caper-comedy than a crime thriller, although that shouldn't suggest to you that it's low on suspense.

Finally you've got perhaps the greatest heist film of all time, John Huston's "The Asphalt Jungle," from 1950. Much like Rififi, it's about a guy recently out of the clink (in this case Sterling Hayden) looking to take down one last big target. This isn't just a heist film but an all-time classic noir: bleak, realistic and cynical. Also like Dassin's film, it features a lengthy, detailed and nearly silent heist sequence. It's an absolute classic. And if that's not enough for you, pair it with Stanley Kubrick's "The Killing." Taken together these two films are an amazing double feature.

We'll be back next week!

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