Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Good Day Sunshine

I was in the midst of a big move when Cinephile Crocodile bestowed a pleasant surprise upon me, with a nomination for the Sunshine Blogger Award. Now that I’m relatively settled, it’s been tougher than I anticipated to jump back into the swing of things, but I couldn’t allow this recognition to go unnoticed. It’s always a blast to receive recognition from a fellow film blogger, especially one with the same penchant for alliterative blog titles. Just when I worry the toils of my labors have fallen into a black hole (along with an untold number of socks), here’s a gentle reminder that someone out there is paying attention (to the blog, not the socks).

As a recipient of this honor, it’s my duty to pass it along to some other worthy bloggers. Sure, the whole blogging award thing sounds a bit like the 21st century equivalent of  

a chain letter, but participation is strictly optional, and no earth-shattering calamity will befall you, should you decide to decline. However, if you choose to accept, there are some rules that are part and parcel to the nomination:

  1. Post the award on your blog.
  2. Thank the person who nominated you.
  3. Answer the 11 questions they sent.
  4. Pick another 11 bloggers and let them know they are nominated.
  5. Give them 11 new questions.

My responses to Cinephile Crocodile’s questions:

1. What makes you angriest about modern cinema?

Bloated, effects-laden productions that favor overblown action sequences over story. Too many blockbusters try to top one another with elaborate explosion-filled climaxes, full of dizzying CGI-laden scenes and questionable physics. More often than not, the end result is overdone, exhausting and boring.

2. What makes you happiest about modern cinema?

As much as I rant about the state of the film industry, it’s worth it to hang in for some of the independent gems that seemingly turn up out of nowhere. The Babadook, Ex Machina, and Under the Shadow are some noteworthy recent examples.

3. What is your favorite bad movie? The movie that is undeniably awful but you love anyway?

Plan 9 from Outer Space is cinematic comfort food. There’s not a hint of nutrition to be found, but it feeds my soul. Like many of Ed Wood’s other productions, there’s a level of sincerity to be found amongst the dreck.

4. If you had to be eaten alive by a movie villain, who would it be and why?

The idea of being devoured by any massive creature doesn’t exactly float my boat, but if I had to choose, it would be the island-sized fish creature from The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989). Sure, it’s not much of a life living in the shipwreck-strewn belly of the beast, but at least there’d be company.

5. Who would you want to play you in the movie of your life but who would be most likely?

Steve Buscemi (think Donny from The Big Lebowski) or Paul Giamatti (as Harvey Pekar in American Splendor) would be ideal candidates to play my self-effacing, persona. In reality, it would probably be an understudy from a small town dinner theatre.

6. What is your favorite movie quote?

Wow... There are so many, but the one that stands out would be:

“Life mocks me even in death.” (uttered by Griffin Dunne as David’s cursed friend Jack in An American Werewolf in London)

7. Name the sequel you'd most like to happen even though you know it's never going to happen?

I would love to see a sequel to The Fifth Element, but I suppose the closest we’re going to get is Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

8. Sweet, salt or mixed popcorn?

I’m a traditionalist, so I’d have to side with salty popcorn.

9. Have you ever been haunted by a film? A film that was either so shocking/disturbing/poignant that you just couldn't get it out of your head for weeks?

The original Alien (1979) burrowed into my impressionable 11-year-old brain with Giger’s singular aesthetic, and of course, the nightmarish title creature.

10. What non-musical film would you most like to see turned into a musical?

Hellboy (directed by Guillermo del Toro, of course!)

11. Do you feel lucky Punk?

Well, actually, yeah. I kind of do.

Here are my nominees for the Sunshine Blogger Award:

Michaël Parent, Le Mot du Cinephiliaque:

JT Williams, Blogferatu:

Stabford Deathrage, Stabford Deathrage Shoots His Mouth Off:

Joey, The Last Drive In:

Silver Screenings:

Kristina, Speakeasy:

Lyz, And You Call Yourself a Scientist:

Dick, The Oak Drive-In:

Kerry, Prowler Needs a Jump:          

Bill Meeker, Frisco Kid at the Movies:

And my questions for you, dear bloggers:

  1. Name a favorite overlooked film that you can’t stop yakking about (even though other people probably wish you would).
  2. What book would you like to see adapted into a movie?
  3. Why do you write about movies?
  4. What’s one of your true passions outside of films or blogging?
  5. Going to the movie theatre: Is it a necessary component for enjoying films, or just a big hassle?
  6. What’s one of your fondest childhood memories of going to the movies?
  7. If you suddenly became unstuck in time like Billy Pilgrim, what era would you want to live in?
  8. Where do you stand on the physical media vs. streaming debate?
  9. What’s your least favorite film genre?
  10. Name a favorite film that’s not in the Criterion Collection, but should be.
  11. Name an acclaimed film that you’re ashamed to admit you haven’t seen.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Pin: A Plastic Nightmare

(1988) Written and directed by Sandor Stern; Based on the novel by Andrew Neiderman; Starring: David Hewlett, Cyndy Preston, John Ferguson and Terry O’Quinn; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“I wanted to take a look at siblings who grow up in the same family and have divergent paths.” – Sandor Stern (from DVD commentary)

If there’s one thing the O Canada Blogathon has taught me, our friendly neighbor to the north has a way of surprising us with a wealth of unexpected cinematic treasures. A hearty thanks to co-hosts Ruth of Silver Screenings and Kristina of Speakeasy for hosting yet another remarkable blogathon, showcasing Canada’s many contributions to film. I’m pleased to return for a third time with yet another unexpected gem, Pin: A Plastic Nightmare (also known as simply Pin). This little psychological thriller proves it doesn’t take a lot of bucks or big name stars to bring some major chills. You want creepy? You’ve got it in spades.

Writer/director Sandor Stern, perhaps best known for writing the screenplay for The Amityville Horror (1979), based his script for Pin on Andrew Neiderman’s 1981 book. It was shot over a period of 31 days in Montreal with a predominately Canadian cast (the sole American actor was Terry O’Quinn). Due to a poor reception at a test screening in Los Angeles, and the fact that cash-strapped distributor New World Pictures closed its theatrical division, Pin went direct to video in the U.S., and only saw a theatrical release in Canada. The film largely faded into obscurity, but enjoyed a modest cult following. Thanks to my trusty copy of the Psychotronic Video Guide, I was fortunate to learn about its existence.

* Fun fact: Although Stern always aspired to become a writer, he graduated as a physician. His medical background lends his film some added veracity to this twisted story.

Leon (David Hewlett) and his younger sister Ursula (Cynthia Preston), live with their stern father, Dr. Linden (Terry O’Quinn), and clean freak mother (Bronwen Mantel). Dr. Linden runs a family medical practice, where he uses an anatomical dummy nicknamed “Pin” (short for Pinocchio, because he doesn’t tell a lie) as an instructional tool, and sometimes speaks through it to talk to the children. Ursula sees her father’s ventriloquism for what it is, but to her brother, Pin is a living, breathing person. The story skips ahead 15 years to the present. After his parents suffer a fatal car accident, Leon brings Pin home and regards him as a member of the family, much to Ursula’s chagrin.

Hewlett is exceptional as the mentally unbalanced Leon, who views himself as Ursula’s protector. But while his sister has grown up to be reasonably well adjusted, Leon becomes more withdrawn from society. In his DVD commentary, Stern described Leon as “Norman Bates with a soft side.” Much like Bates, Leon remains frozen in a pre-adolescent state, caught between childlike fantasies and the responsibilities of adulthood. He attempts to take on his father’s role as family patriarch, while consulting Pin for life advice. To complete the illusion that Pin is a real person, Leon covers Pin in fake skin and dresses the dummy in his father’s clothes.  

Pin is a relentless study in psychological dysfunction, which sets the viewer on edge and doesn’t let up. In the film’s establishing scenes, we witness the seeds of family discord. Dr. Linden approaches his relationship to his children with clinical detachment. His obsessive-compulsive wife keeps an immaculate house (complete with plastic on the furniture), which resembles a museum. In one of the film’s more disturbing scenes, teenage Ursula becomes pregnant and seeks an abortion from her father, who approaches it with the same unemotional state as everything else. When he discovers that Leon has been having conversations* with Pin on his own, his first response, as with Ursula’s situation, is to cover it up. Whenever something unpleasant occurs, the father and children conspire to conceal it from Mrs. Linden. Unlike Leon, Ursula is much more resilient to traumatic life events, and grows up to start a healthy relationship with a young man. On the other hand, Leon continues his descent into unhealthy territory, and ambivalence toward sex. He adopts his father’s cold language, referring to sex as “the need,” a purely biological imperative.  

* Pin’s voice, supplied by Jonathan Banks, is particularly unnerving. His calm, measured speech pattern is reminiscent of Hal from 2001. Stern commented that he purposely wanted a “neutral” voice, which wouldn’t be recognizable as belonging to Dr. Linden or Leon.

Pin: A Plastic Nightmare is a true cult film, revered by a few and unknown by most. Like its characters, it’s far from perfect, but it’s easy to excuse a few creaky plot elements when the rest of the film works so well. It’s not about body count, gore, or jump scares, but works its way under your skin in a more insidious fashion, creeping into your brain with a Hitchcock-style precision. Sandor Stern orchestrates a profile of psychological torment, understanding that it’s not what you see, but what you don’t see (or think you see) that plays with your mind. Pin isn’t nearly as well-known as it deserves to be. While it was a crime this film was buried, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t go the extra mile (or kilometer) to find one of Canadian cinema’s best-kept secrets.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Japan-uary VI Quick Picks and Pans

Jigoku (1960) Many films about hell make promises about what you might see, but few deliver. Jigoku is a rare exception that doesn’t pull its punches in its sordid depictions of the Buddhist underworld. Shirô (Shigeru Amachi) is a young college student, engaged to marry the daughter of one of his professors. One night, while driving home from her house, he hits a drunken man who wandered into the road. Instead of stopping to help, he drives away, leaving the man to perish. Soon afterward, one tragedy after another befalls Shirô. All the while, he’s plagued by Tamura (Yôichi Numata), a strange man who represents his conscience.

Director/co-writer Nobuo Nakagawa creates a dizzying experience, full of symbolism throughout to depict Shirô’s inexorable descent. The film features inventive set design and art direction, which illustrate the numerous torments of Buddhist hell. As Shirô navigates the horrific, gory landscape, he visits different levels where justice is meted out in a manner commensurate with each crime. It’s an unforgettable, unsettling trip.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory (2015) I really wasn’t expecting much from Haruko’s Paranormal Laboratory, which appears to have been shot for less than $500, but ended up pleasantly surprised. This charming comedy/fantasy from writer/director Lisa Takeba focuses on Haruko (Moeka Nozaki), a lonely young woman who becomes so involved with her television shows that her TV turns into a man (Aoi Nakamura). Haruko ponders her new dilemma, as she pursues an unconventional romance with her new boyfriend. Takeba’s film is an absurd commentary about how the lives of people on television become more real to us than the outside world (the TV brand is “Videodrome”). Much like the films of Mamoru Kawasaki, you get used to the fact that there’s a guy with a TV head, and move on. There’s also a freak show, space aliens and a Jason cosplayer. How does it all fit in? You’ll just have to wait and see.

Rating: ****. Available on Amazon Video

Paprika (2006) The late, great director Satoshi Kon had far too few feature films to his credit, but left a lasting impression on the anime world. Paprika concerns a revolutionary invention, the DC Mini, a headset that enables someone to enter another’s dreams. The device is intended for psychological research and therapy, but after one of the headsets goes missing, it’s clear that it can be twisted into something that can harm. A psychological researcher (assisted by her alter-ego, “Paprika”), a police investigator, and the childlike genius who invented the DC Mini combine forces to locate the errant device. Meanwhile, the dream world and reality collide with increasing frequency. Filled with mind-bending images and a thoughtful story, Paprika is a feast for the eyes, best experienced, rather than described

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Belladonna of Sadness (1973) Eiichi Yamamoto’s visually stunning, tragic tale is unlike any other anime film I’ve seen. The film lives up to its title, depicting the story of a young woman who’s raped by a sadistic king on her wedding night, and continues to experience a cascade of tragic events. She finds a way to climb up in status, only to be shunned by the kingdom and her fellow villagers. She’s seduced by the devil, who promises her prestige and the power to heal, but at a terrible price. Yamamoto incorporates multiple styles to illustrate the heroine’s personal journey, as she explores her sexuality, and uses sex as her only leveraging tool. It’s a meditation on gender inequality and social injustice that seems more relevant than ever.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Video

Pitfall (1962) Director Hiroshi Tehigahara’s (The Face of Another, Woman in the Dunes) debut feature film paints a bleak portrait of industrial Japan, and the human cost associated with prosperity. An itinerant coal mine worker is mistaken for the leader of a labor union, and murdered by a strange man in white. The ghost of the murdered man wanders the countryside, trying to learn more about the man who killed him. The local police conduct a fruitless investigation, while the sole witness to the murder misleads them for her own gain. Pitfall is visually compelling, with a neo-noir feel and a supernatural twist. While I was captivated by the cinematography and themes, I felt distanced by the characters. It’s fascinating to watch, but difficult to feel emotionally engaged.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Welcome to the Space Show (2010) This beautifully animated film is a joy to look at, but the story is a little weak, with its predictable “be yourself” and “follow your dreams” messages. A group of kids in a rural town befriend a dog-like alien, who takes them on a trip to the far side of the moon and beyond. The film works best when it showcases the imagination of the animators – they really went above and beyond to depict a broad spectrum of alien creatures. It’s also effective in some of the quietest moments, when the characters have a moment to take a breath and contemplate their surroundings. Too bad the climax is a standard overblown action sequence, with a clichéd fight between good and evil. If you’re looking for something the whole family can watch, however, you could do much worse. It’s still light years ahead of most of the animated claptrap that comes out of Hollywood.

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video

Big Man Japan (2007) This unconventional mockumentary by director/co-writer Hitoshi Matsumoto chronicles the everyday, often humdrum life of superhero Masaru Daisatô (also played by Matsumoto). Nothing seems to go right for Daisatô, who’s 6th in a line of superheroes, and faces sagging TV ratings, almost universal public scorn, and a marriage on the skids. He becomes super-sized, thanks to a jolt of electricity, and fights an increasingly bizarre lineup of monsters (including a kaiju with a comb-over hairdo) that threaten the peace of Japan’s major cities. Matsumoto approaches his character with pathos, and never makes the mistake of pandering for laughs. Most of the film works so well that it’s disappointing when things fall apart at the end. Instead of bringing some sort of resolution to Daisatô’s story, we’re treated to an Ultraman-style parody that seems tacked on. Caveats aside, the dubious conclusion shouldn’t stop you from checking out a truly one-of-a-kind experience.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD 

Twilight Syndrome: Dead Go Round (aka: Twilight Syndrome: Deadly Theme Park) (2008) I was playing streaming roulette one night, and happened upon this silly fantasy/horror film based on a video game series in Japan. A group of players are transported to a deserted amusement park, and are forced to take part in a winner-take-all competition. A weird clown (who looks like the love child of Ronald McDonald and Ryuk from Death Note) presides over the action, and serves as judge, jury and executioner. Each participant must complete a goal in order to reach the next level, with death the penalty for failure. The players are stereotypical archetypes (the obese geek, the brooding loner, the fashionista, etc…). It all adds up to a conclusion that doesn’t make a lot of sense, but conveniently sets things up for a sequel. While Dead Go Round might not be the biggest waste of time, you’d be better off watching Battle Royale instead.

Rating: **½. Available on DVD and Amazon Video