Thursday, December 29, 2011

January Becomes Japan-uary!



As 2011 draws to a close and 2012 begins, it’s time to usher in a new theme month, focusing exclusively on the output of films from one country.  I’ve chosen to inaugurate this first of hopefully many surveys by sampling the expansive and varied body of films of Japan.  I think it’s only fair to preface this upcoming exploration by proclaiming that I’m not an expert on Japanese culture or a scholar of Japanese movies, just a lifelong enthusiast.  Here in the States, many seem to prefer familiarity and sameness to innovation, so anything truly “different” needs to be imported from somewhere else.  No other country’s cinematic offerings leave me scratching my head as much or possess a touch as distinctive as the varied films from the Land of the Rising Sun.  With this in mind, I hope you’ll forgive any cultural misunderstandings, and take my commentary with a grain of salt.

Over the next several weeks I’ll cover comedies, ghost stories, anime, horror and science fiction, revisiting some old favorites and hopefully discovering some new ones as well.  I apologize in advance if I’ve left out one of your personal favorites, but I can always revisit this exploration in 2013 (if the Mayan calendar is wrong).   As always, suggestions are welcome and encouraged!  Who knows where I’ll be next? 

Stay tuned…

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

December Quick Picks and Pans


Circus of Horrors (1960) Anton Diffring stars as brilliant but twisted plastic surgeon Dr. Schuler.  He has a gift for correcting facial deformities, but trouble follows him wherever he goes.  While fleeing the authorities in England, he assumes a new identity in France, and wastes no time cheating the owner of a second-rate traveling circus (played by Donald Pleasence) out of his property.  He acquires a troupe of performers consisting of people he’s helped along the way with his surgical skills – but there’s a stiff price to pay for anyone who thinks of leaving.   The circus hops from town to town, with a series of mysterious deaths attributed to various “accidents.”  The dim local police are slow to find a connection between the new owner and the deaths, until a meddlesome British reporter starts investigating the clues.  Diffring’s performance as the amoral doctor is the best reason to see this goofy but fun circus-themed thriller.  And just try not to laugh at the obvious bear and gorilla suits used in some key circus scenes.  One word of warning: prepare to hear the song “Look for a Star” multiple times (apparently the producers wanted their money’s worth).

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.



The Ward (2010) John Carpenter’s first feature-length film in ten years is merely adequate.   Amber Heard stars as Kristen, a young woman’s who’s been committed to a mental hospital after setting a farmhouse on fire.  She can’t remember what prompted her behavior – the only clue is the farmhouse’s address written on her hand.  She meets the usual colorful assortment of patients that you’d expect to see in a fictitious mental ward.  In fact, too much of Michael and Shawn Rasmussen’s screenplay seems to borrow from other mental illness films, such as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Shock Corridor.  The Ward never really seems like a Carpenter film, lacking his trademark music (The generic sounding score was done by Mark Kilian), and delivering only a few generic jolts.  The whole production just seems to be lacking in energy.  The perfunctory surprise ending won’t be much of a shocker either.  You’ll probably see it coming long before the main character does.

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD, Blu-ray and Netflix Streaming. 



The Pit and the Pendulum (1991) This direct-to-video quickie by director Stuart Gordon, based very loosely on the Edgar Allen Poe story of the same name, boasts a surprising assembly of talent, but fails to rise above mediocrity.  It’s a cut above the usual Full Moon Entertainment productions, although that’s not really saying much.  It’s set during the Spanish Inquisition, when it presumably didn’t take much to be labeled a witch.  Lance Henriksen takes every opportunity to chew the scenery as the pious Torquemada the Grand Inquisitor.  He has a little too much pride in his work as he mercilessly tortures those who have sinned against the church (according to his skewed judgment).  Jeffrey Combs is amusing in a supporting role as Francisco, one of Torquemada’s lackeys.  There’s also a cameo by Oliver Read as a cardinal.  Gordon does the best he can with what was clearly a low-budget production, but the sets look flimsy and cheap (the pendulum room looks especially unconvincing), leading one to believe that the Spanish Inquisition was just a small-time operation.  Henriksen fans might want to take a look, simply for his nutty performance, but everyone else should consider searching for something else.  

Rating: ** ½.  Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming.


Amer (2009) Amer is one of the best looking bad movies I’ve ever seen – a movie only a film student could love.  This interesting to look at but ultimately vapid French thriller emulates the Italian giallo style, replete with artsy camerawork and weird music that emphasizes mood over substance.   The film’s structure can be divided into three parts, as it follows the central female protagonist as a child, adolescent and adult, along with her connection to a creepy house.  

Writer/directors Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani seem to confuse innovation with irritation, in their efforts to convey a dreamlike state throughout Amer.  To say that the dialogue is spare would be an understatement.  The characters avoid opening their mouths, as if speaking would cause great pain.  The numerous extreme close-ups only serve to distance the viewer, rather than make the film more intimate.  The rampant, frequently obvious symbolism is clumsy and laughable. 

Amer might have worked better as a short film, but at its present length, it’s an exercise in tedium.  All of the characters are deliberately held at arms’ length.  As the film wears on, the novelty of their ambiguity just seems grating and pretentious.  There are individual scenes that manage to be effective, but it doesn’t add up to much.  So, is it a blatant rip-off or loving pastiche of the giallo genre?  You decide.  I’m bitter.

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

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Return of Doctor X



(1939) Directed by Vincent Sherman; Written by Lee Katz; Story by William J. Makin; Starring: Wayne Morris, Rosemary Lane and Humphrey Bogart; Available on DVD

Rating: ***

The Return of Doctor X has been maligned over the years as an oddity, mainly notable because it was Humphrey Bogart’s only foray into the horror genre.  The film’s less than stellar reputation was further cemented by the fact that Bogart reportedly hated his role as the eponymous Dr. Xavier (aka: Dr. Quesne).  While it’s hardly groundbreaking stuff, it’s not nearly as awful as you’d suspect.  Forget for a moment that the film doesn’t really have anything to do with the first Doctor X movie (also released by First National Pictures) – about the only thing they have in common are doctors performing mad science and goofy reporter main characters.  Also consider that the first Doctor X movie wasn’t exactly a classic in the first place, which leaves the latter film to be judged on its own merits.


Lee Katz’s screenplay was loosely based on William J. Makin’s story “The Doctor’s Secret,” which originally appeared in Detective Fiction Weekly.  Many of the details were changed, including the setting of 1885 London to contemporary New York.  First-time director Vincent Sherman had previous experience as an actor and writer on stage and screen, but learned the more technical aspects of filmmaking while he shot The Return of Doctor X.  This was not his first collaboration with Bogart, having worked with him the previous year as screenwriter on Crime School. *  Sherman, just shy of his 100th birthday, contributed to the fascinating DVD commentary for The Return of Doctor X, providing remarkably lucid insight about the film, working with Bogart, and old Hollywood in general.

* Coincidentally, the Bogart connection doesn’t end there.  Sherman would eventually go on to direct the TV biopic Bogie 41 years later.


Although Bogart’s character is clearly the main focus of the story, he doesn’t get top billing.  Wayne Morris, presumably deemed more bankable as a leading man, was given more screen time as ace reporter Walter `Wichita’ Garrett.  He’s on his way to interview the actress Angela Merrova (Lya Lys), only to discover that she’s been murdered, drained of blood, with surgical precision.  Garrett realizes that he has a much different story than he’d originally bargained for.  After he writes her obituary she suddenly shows up again, apparently alive and well.  Naturally, this doesn’t sit well with his boss at the newspaper, who’s already printed a retraction, and he’s promptly fired.  Garrett knows that something is awry with Merrova, and decides to find out the truth behind her apparent death.  He works with his pal, Dr. Mike Rhodes (Dennis Morgan), to get the real story, and hopefully get his job back.  Morris’ pratfall-laden performance is mostly played for laughs, analogous to Lee Tracy’s role as the jokey reporter Lee Taylor in Doctor X


Bogart doesn’t appear until 22 minutes into the 62-minute film.  If nothing else, he makes a distinctive impression with his shock of white hair and pallid complexion, in a role that was originally slated for Boris Karloff.  He now uses the moniker Dr. Quesne, distancing himself from his former identity as the infamous Dr. Maurice Xavier.  He’s been brought back from the dead, thanks to Dr. Francis Flegg’s synthetic blood, but now requires frequent infusions of real blood to stay alive.  In spite of the fact that Bogart was not enamored of the material he had to work with, he’s never less than engaging whenever he’s on screen.  According to Sherman, Bogart “…did the best he could with what he had.”  He approached his role as the consummate professional, giving his performance more conviction than perhaps it deserved.  


John Litel also turns in a noteworthy performance as Dr. Flegg (originally intended for Bela Lugosi).  He resembles the stereotypical mad scientist with his monocle and Mephistopheles goatee, establishing him as an individual not to be trusted.  He’s not really a villain, though – more of an example of scientific hubris.  Unfortunately for Dr. Flegg, he realizes too late that he’s made a terrible decision experimenting with his synthetic blood and choosing the morally questionable Dr. Quesne as an ally. 


Sherman admitted that he “knew it was a cornball story,” but that doesn’t negate the fact that he endeavored to create a film that would still be moderately entertaining and move at a good pace.  Considering the former casting choice for The Return of Doctor X, I’m left to speculate whether it would have been judged as harshly if Karloff had played Dr. Quesne instead.  Bogart’s biggest crime was being cast against expectations, making his role an anomaly.  The Return of Doctor X will never be considered a genre high point, nor will the role of Dr. Quesne be regarded as one of Bogart’s shining moments, but taken in the right context you can still have a good time with the film.  It’s worthwhile viewing, not just for Bogart completists, but fans of b-horror from the 30s.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Have Yourself a Contrary Little Christmas

It’s that time of year again.  Time for overeating, compensatory consumption, forced cheer and strained family relations.  Sometimes, it can feel as if you’re on autopilot, following a subconscious checklist of automatic behaviors that are bereft of any true meaning.  It doesn’t have to be all bad, though.  Just because it’s the holiday season doesn’t mean that you have to conform completely to society’s expectations.  Sure, you could watch one of the standards such as A Christmas Carol, Miracle on 34th Street, It’s a Wonderful Life, or even A Christmas Story, but that would be so predictable.  Maybe you’re ready to throw a monkey wrench into the well-oiled machinery of the Yuletide season, and add to this beloved but slightly moldy list of staples.  In this spirit of upsetting the apple cart, I present for your consideration this short list of Christmas-themed flicks that are sure to chase away the holiday blues, and maybe start some new traditions:


Black Christmas (1974) What’s a Christmas movie without John Saxon?  Hey, if we can associate the holiday with the likes of Jimmy Stewart or even Peter Billingsley, then maybe it’s time to add Mr. Saxon to the list.  The story isn’t particularly fresh, to 21st century eyes and ears, but it must have raised a stir when it debuted in the 70s.  The residents of a sorority house (including Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder and Andrea Martin) are being stalked by a psychopath, and methodically picked off one by one.  Can Lt. Fuller (Saxon) solve the case before it’s too late for the students?  Black Christmas is a cut above (pardon my pun) the typical slashers, with healthy doses of humor and suspense.  Often imitated, but never duplicated, the POV killer shots and crazed phone calls add to the film’s demented charms.  It’s hard to believe that director Bob Clark would go on to direct perennial favorite A Christmas Story just nine years later.

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

  
Gremlins (1984) Joe Dante skewers Americana and subverts classic depictions of the holidays in one fell swoop.  We’re introduced to the idyllic Norman Rockwell-esque town of Kingston Falls, and watch as everything unravels in one night.  Chaotic little creatures rapidly multiply and take over Kingston Falls, and it’s up to Billy Peltzer (who inadvertently started the mess) to make things right.  This sardonic assault on Christmas schmaltz takes an especially dark turn when Billy’s girlfriend Kate Beringer (Phoebe Cates) pauses to make a speech about why she hates Christmas (in a scene that would be mercilessly parodied in Gremlins 2).  For the most part, however, the tone is fairly breezy, packed with Looney Tunes-inspired gags and fun little in jokes (look for the loving nod to Forbidden Planet).

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


Tales From the Crypt (1972) Admittedly, this Amicus portmanteau film is only on the list because of the first segment, “And All Through The Night,” but it’s sure to get you in the proper holiday mood (or maybe not).  Joan Collins stars as a scheming woman who kills her husband for the insurance money on Christmas night.  It seems like the perfect crime, until she encounters a homicidal escaped mental patient garbed like Santa.  Stick around for the other stories in this horror anthology – while they’re not really holiday-themed, let’s face it, anytime’s a fine time for a good scare or two.

Rating: ****; Available on DVD


Edward Scissorhands (1990) The Nightmare Before Christmas is becoming a modern holiday standard in its own right, but I humbly suggest that another Tim Burton flick should share the pantheon.  This modern suburban fable stars Johnny Depp as the titular character, in the first of many collaborations with Burton.  Edward is the archetypal outsider, a black-clad oddity thrust into a sea of conformity (symbolized by the pastel-colored cookie-cutter neighborhood that he’s introduced into).  He’s initially met with fear and suspicion by the residents, but becomes a local celebrity, and eventually a pariah.  Edward embodies the selflessness often touted by the Christmas season, but rarely displayed in individuals.  He’s a true original that becomes a martyr for the other characters’ transgressions, a victim of their capriciousness.  Edward Scissorhands is not only one of one of Tim Burton’s best films, but it also carries the sad distinction of showcasing Vincent Price’s final feature film appearance as Edward’s kindly mad scientist inventor/father. 

Rating: **** ½; Available on DVD and Blu-ray



Bad Santa (2003) Director Terry Zwigoff’s ode to mass consumerism and misanthropic department store Santas is an equal opportunity offender.  With a title like Bad Santa, you can probably guess that it’s not for everyone (I’ll leave it to you to decide which side of the fence you’re on).  Billy Bob Thornton stars as Willie, the role he was born to play, and I’m presuming he’s employed a whole lot of sense memory for authenticity’s sake. Willie hops from town to town each Christmas season, running a successful department store theft ring with his accomplice, Marcus (Tony Cox).  He’s perpetually drunk and mean-spirited, drenched in his own self-hatred, and probably the least likely role model for an odd young boy (Brett Kelly) named Thurman Merman.  The boy strikes up a friendship of sorts with Willie, despite the perpetual verbal assaults.  Willie is a thoroughly contemptible individual who probably deserves everything that’s coming to him, but it’s a credit to Thornton’s performance that we still care enough to see how things turn out.  I’m not spoiling anything by pointing out that there are no syrupy scenes of redemption at the end, and he doesn’t really reform himself, but we wouldn’t want it any other way.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray



Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (2010) Last, but certainly not least, is an unconventional Christmas movie from Finland that explores the malevolent origins of the Santa Claus legend.  I was fortunate enough to catch this film during its limited theatrical release (you can read my review here), but now it’s available for everyone to see.  Director/co-writer Jalmari Helander spins a story of an ancient terror unleashed amidst a stark winter landscape.  Probably because it’s told in such a straightforward fashion, and not simply for laughs, we buy into the decidedly absurd premise.  We get the joke, without the necessity of having it hammered into our skulls.  Brace yourself for the inevitable inferior Hollywood remake.

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


Happy holidays to all, and to all a good night!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

The Once Over Twice: Dark Star



(1974) Directed by John Carpenter; Written by John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon; Starring: Brian Narelle, Dre Pahich, Cal Kuniholme and Dan O’Bannon
Available on DVD

Rating: ****

Dark Star is predominantly known as the film that launched the careers of John Carpenter and Dan O’Bannon, but it also deserves attention as a minor science fiction classic.  The film started out as a student project at USC, which producer Jack Harris helped develop into a theatrical-length feature.  Carpenter’s relationship with Harris was purportedly contentious, but it helped put his name (and O’Bannon’s) on the map, eventually leading to bigger productions.


The film follows the exploits of the crew of the space ship Dark Star, who have been tasked to locate and destroy “unstable planets.”  It’s never made precisely clear what constitutes an unstable planet, but I suppose that it has something to do with erratic orbits that threaten other planets in a solar system.  20 years have elapsed since the Dark Star began its mission, although the crew members have only aged three years.  An equipment malfunction resulted in the death of Commander Powell, who now exists in a semi-conscious state in cryogenic storage. 


As the crew’s sanity erodes, each member deals with the boredom of deep space exploration in his own way.  Lt. Doolittle (Brian Narelle) is currently in command of the Dark Star, but doesn’t particularly relish his duties.  He pines away for his surfing days and plays music on his bottles.  Talby (Dre Pahich) spends most of his time in the ship’s observation bubble, just staring at the stars.  Sgt. Pinback (Dan O’Bannon) tends to an alien mascot that he brought on board to liven things up.  John Carpenter effectively captures the monotony of confined life in a spacecraft for a prolonged period of time, managing to make it amusing without eliciting boredom from the audience – not an easy task.


O’Bannon, who co-wrote the screenplay with Carpenter and also worked on the special effects, brings a lot of pathos to the Sgt. Pinback character.  This was a rare starring role for O’Bannon, who preferred to stay behind the scenes, and would go on to write the screenplays for Alien, Total Recall and Return of the Living Dead, to name just a few.  He’s basically the Rodney Dangerfield of the bunch, garnering no respect from his fellow crewmates.  He doesn’t seem quite as jaded by the isolation, and makes several ineffectual attempts to encourage camaraderie, which are largely ignored by the others.  He keeps a taped video diary, where he expresses his exasperation with everyone else, and sulks about the crew forgetting his birthday.  The scenes with Sgt. Pinback and an alien creature (operated by assistant cameraman and future director Nick Castle) that suspiciously resembles a beach ball play like a silent movie routine.  These protracted chase scenes go on far too long, and could easily have been cut in half, but they still comprise some of the more memorable moments in Dark Star.  It’s hard not to laugh as the creature turns the tables on the hapless Pinback. 


In contrast to the earnest optimism of many 50s and 60s films depicting space travel as a wondrous opportunity for exploration (2001, Forbidden Planet, etc…), Dark Star prefers to take a more cynical view.  The mission of the Dark Star is endemic of government excess and exploration for profit at the expense of the individual (the crew’s request for additional radiation shielding is denied).  Any social commentary, however, is purely unintentional, or at least kept to a minimum.  It’s doubtful that Carpenter and O’Bannon   intended to present a treatise on inequities in society or the harsh realities of space exploration, preferring humor over pontification.  As they scan the galaxy for a new system with unstable planets, Doolittle states, “…just give me something I can blow up.”  One of the film’s highlights occur later in the film, as Doolittle is forced to engage in an existential discussion with one of the ship’s sentient bombs (normally used to destroy planets).  He tries to convince the defective bomb that its sensory information could be faulty while the bomb insists that it must carry out its programming to explode.


The special effects are surprisingly good, considering the time and $60,000 budget.  Ron Cobb (working on his first motion picture) designed the Dark Star’s exterior, and the corridors seemed to be inspired by 2001: A Space Odyssey (undoubtedly created for a fraction of the price of Kubrick’s film).  For the most part, the ship has a more “lived-in” look compared to the sanitized environment found in many other science fiction films that preceded it, which was likely dictated by the fact that the filmmakers had to be imaginative with what they had to work with.  The set/prop designs are augmented by bargain basement hardware such as lighted ice cube trays for buttons on a control panel, or a muffin pan on a spacesuit.  This doesn’t detract from the story, but adds to the film’s do-it-yourself charm.  It’s easy to see how these concessions made out of necessity influenced later, more expensive productions such as Star Wars and Alien.



Dark Star’s unique origins beg the question: “Would it be worth watching if none of the cast or crew went on to do anything else?”  The answer is a resounding “yes.”  It’s more than a cult oddity or cinematic footnote.  The film represents the product of several talented minds converging during the “anything goes” 1970s to create a bold film with big ideas that’s not afraid to venture into absurdity.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Burrowers



(2008) Written and directed by J.T. Petty; Starring: Clancy Brown, David Busse, William Mapother, Karl Geary and Sean Patrick Thomas

Available on DVD and Netflix Streaming

Rating: ***

Writer/director J.T. Petty’s horror/western hybrid The Burrowers ran the film festival circuit, but never had a proper theatrical release, eventually ending up on home video.  The film’s mixed reviews and direct-to-video pedigree didn’t bode particularly well, but I was intrigued enough by its premise to give it a chance.  Although The Burrowers doesn’t entirely triumph over its b-movie origins, it’s a modestly successful mixed-genre effort, thanks to the relatively novel setting and inventive creature designs.

The Burrowers is set in the Dakota Territories, circa 1879.  A family of settlers is viciously attacked by unseen assailants in the opening nighttime scene and the members are abducted, setting the stage for an exhaustive search by a posse led by John Clay (Clancy Brown).  The local indigenous population is blamed for the disappearance, despite the absence of proof.  He’s joined by Irish immigrant Fergus Coffey (Karl Geary), who’s determined to find out what happened to his sweetheart, who vanished, along with her family.  Former slave Walnut Callaghan (Sean Patrick Thomas) accompanies Coffey on his quest. 


Clay’s posse encounters an army troop, led by sadistic officer Henry Victor (played with sneering aplomb by Doug Hutchison).  After a lone Native American scout is captured, Victor has him tortured to find out what information he possesses about the missing settlers.  We soon discover that the scout knows more than he’s telling, but it’s not what anyone’s expecting.  As the search drags on for the missing settlers and more people go missing, the situation become increasingly desperate and futile.

Strange sounds herald the approach of creatures in the darkness.  We only see brief flashes of the eponymous burrowers at first, but when we eventually get a better look their appearance does not disappoint.  I don’t want to give away too much, but they seem suitably fearsome as predators, and credible as a subterranean species.  The creatures inject a type of neurotoxin that paralyzes their victims.  The victims are then presumably buried, left to waste away in the ground until their innards become soft enough for the burrowers to digest.  We get hints about the burrowers’ origins and life cycle, but it’s clear that they’ve been around longer than humans.  The Native Americans have established a tenuous co-existence with the creatures, but their relationship is disrupted by the encroachment of the white settlers.   


The film was shot in Panavision, but the wide frames are offset by de-saturated color.  It’s evident that Petty wasn’t looking to make a travelogue film with brilliantly hued vistas, but probably intended to capture the look of a faded photograph.  The understated colors, however, have another unintended effect.  In several scenes that involve copious amounts of blood spray, the reds are reduced to a dark brown.
  
The Burrowers is fairly thin in the dialogue department.  Most of the characters have little to say, unless they’re providing exposition to complement the action that’s taking place.  In fact, few of the characters truly stand out, except as rough, underdeveloped sketches.  Everyone in the film can easily be described with one sentence or less.  We just take it for granted that Coffey is tracking the whereabouts of his love interest due to great devotion, but their relationship is never fully established.  There’s a brief, wordless scene when he and she exchange glances (and a pendant) but there are no words between them.  The supporting characters fare even worse.  Coffey’s companion, Walnut, was once a slave but we never hear much about his tortured past.  Victor, the army officer, is little more than a racist caricature.   None of the characters ever rise above their two-dimensional confines, making it difficult to become invested in their personal dilemmas.  In the final summation, this lack of distinct characterization is what makes The Burrowers a merely adequate, rather than really good genre-bending horror film.


By the time the film screeches to a halt, we’ve probably learned more about the burrowers, themselves, than any of the humans.  It’s frustrating to think about what could have been, rather than witnessing the finished product.  The Burrowers could have been more than a “what if” exercise, if it had characters that you truly cared about (Compare this to the superior Tremors, which covered somewhat similar territory, but with much more interesting characters and wittier dialogue.).  The Burrowers is a bit of an oddity – there haven’t been many horror westerns to compare to it.  Taken in the right light, it works effectively enough.  It’s still worth a look for its modified ”hunters and the hunted” theme, but we’re left with the feeling that the material could have been pushed farther.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Crumb



(1994) Directed by Terry Zwigoff; Starring: Robert Crumb, Aline Kominsky and Charles Crumb;
Available on DVD and Blu-ray

Rating: **** ½

Provocative, controversial and darkly humorous – these are just a few ways to describe the work of underground comic strip artist Robert Crumb.  Terry Zwigoff presents an unflinching profile of the often maligned artist, who’s perhaps best known for the ubiquitous “Keep on Truckin’” meme and “Fritz the Cat” character.  It’s a portrait of an immensely talented but flawed individual, shaped by his troubled past.  We have an unprecedented window into Crumb’s current life, past loves, and artistic inspiration.


Zwigoff follows Crumb around as he traces his artistic steps.  The documentary is framed by scenes of Crumb and his family as they prepare to move from their northern California home to southern France.  Zwigoff plays the fly on the wall, affording us a relatively unobtrusive glimpse of some of the key people in Crumb’s life, as well as a peek at his artistic process.  At times, Zwigoff steps back from talking head interviews and scenes of Crumb interacting with friends and family members, letting his artwork speak for itself.  We see a representative sample of Crumb’s work, which is no small feat, considering that it has spanned several decades and undergone many evolutionary changes. 


Probably the best adjective to describe Crumb’s work is “polarizing.”  It’s the kind of art that doesn’t invite apathy.  It represents a uniquely warped vision that’s rarely safe.  Much of the samples presented in Crumb appear id-driven, seemingly issuing forth from the artist’s unconscious.  As a result, there are a few times when a perplexed Crumb can’t always articulate what a specific piece means to him.  We hear from a couple of Crumb’s most ardent admirers (Time Magazine’s Robert Hughes and art gallery owner Martin Muller) as they attempt to explain the cultural significance of his work, but they only manage to over-intellectualize his intent and obfuscate any meaning. 


The film suggests that Robert Crumb is a product of his childhood environment, which inevitably shaped his artistic inspiration.  Unfortunately, Crumb’s sisters declined to be interviewed for the film, so we never get to hear their perspective.  The other party that remains unheard is Crumb’s father, who was deceased at the time of the documentary.  His domineering presence still looms over the family like an unseen antagonist.  Interviews with his mother and two brothers provide valuable insight into his formative years.  Through their recollections, we’re able to construct a rich mosaic of his chaotic early years, and how that affected his outlook on life and future relationships.   The most tragic family figure is his older brother Charles, middle-aged and living at home with his mother, who was instrumental in pushing Robert into cartooning in the first place.  Brief glimpses of Charles’ artwork indicate a formidable, but unrealized talent.  He’s numbed by tranquilizers and antidepressants and afraid to leave the house, but his intelligence and wit manage to shine through.  We learn about the progression of his artwork and writing, as his mental state began to steadily deteriorate over time and he became less in tune with reality. *  Crumb’s younger brother Maxon is briefly seen.  He lives a quasi-monastic existence in a dingy hotel room in San Francisco, with a regimen that involves meditation and sitting on a bed of nails.  He has also built a name for himself, with his abstract, oddly fascinating paintings. 
                       
* As a tragic but not entirely surprising footnote, Charles committed suicide shortly after Crumb was filmed.


Compared to his siblings, Crumb has been able to confront his inner demons, to lead a reasonably normal existence.  We get the feeling that his painfully autobiographical artwork is a form of self-administered therapy.  He taps into the things that are usually left hidden away in a corner of our minds.  Most of us would rather keep our base fears and anxieties bottled up, but Crumb honestly confronts the darker confines of his psyche.   His art doesn’t invite apathy.  Because of his fearless approach, he’s invited equal amounts of praise and scorn.  Some critics have accused him of being misogynistic or borderline racist, and Zwigoff acknowledges this.  We hear from one of his detractors, Deidre English, who dissects one of his more contentious pieces, “Joe Blow,” labeling it “over the line.” 


Crumb never puts its subject on a pedestal, nor condemns him, but does what exceptional documentaries do.  We see the artist as a human being instead of a caricature.  His work appears superficially offensive, but there’s a deeper context, even if it’s only apparent to Crumb himself.   His aesthetic is driven by his fetishistic vision of the ideal woman, simultaneously reflecting his fear and reverence of the opposite sex.  He’s a man of many contradictions, helping to usher in a modern era of comic art, but displaying contempt for the new (He seems like someone from another era, wearing a straw hat and collecting ancient jazz 78s.).  It’s virtually impossible to adequately represent anyone in two hours, but Crumb probably serves as the most complete primer we’re likely to ever see.  The misanthropic, cantankerous and reclusive Robert Crumb is a true original, who doesn’t beg for our pity or understanding.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Sleeper


(1973) Directed by Woody Allen; Written by: Woody Allen and Marshall Brickman; Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton and John Beck; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

I first watched Sleeper sometime in the 1970s when I was just a little kid, and it left an indelible impression that demanded repeated viewings over the years.  It was most likely my first Woody Allen film – not a bad starting point for anyone looking for a more accessible entry into Allen’s unique brand of comedy.  Sleeper is best described as cerebral slapstick, having more in common with Allen’s earlier, broader efforts such as Take the Money and Run and Bananas, but representing the evolving sensibilities of a maturing filmmaker.  Amidst the numerous sight gags, Allen weaves in substantial amounts of social satire, pop culture jabs and literary references.



Sleeper takes place in a future that seems alien, yet not too unrecognizable from our own time.  Miles Monroe, played by Allen, wakes up after he was placed in cryogenic suspension, following a botched operation.  He‘s surprised to discover that 200 years have passed, and the existence that he knew is gone.  In its place is a bizarre, sanitized world rife with contradictions and run by a totalitarian regime.  The physicians who revived him are part of an underground movement dedicated to toppling the government, and Miles is simply a pawn in their greater scheme.  As they attempt to learn more about Miles’ former life, it’s the perfect opportunity to skewer several significant 20th-century figures, including Howard Cosell, Joseph Stalin and Billy Graham.  Miles serves as the ideal, befuddled guide to bridge the past and future worlds for the audience, as he tries to make heads or tails of his weird new surroundings (At one point he exclaims, “My God! I beat a man insensible with a strawberry!”).  He’s another iteration of the self-deprecating, neurotic everyman that Allen would continue to refine over the years.


Luna Schlosser (Diane Keaton) is the other key player in Allen’s dystopian comedy.  She’s the epitome of the 1970s “Me Generation,” exemplified by her egocentrism and relentless pursuit of hedonistic pleasures.  She enjoys her isolated, bourgeois existence, favoring her anesthetized, controlled world and electronic comforts (such as the orgasmatron and servant robots) over whatever happens outside her door.  Luna doesn’t understand why there would be an uprising, turning a blind eye to the injustice that’s going on under her nose.  She’s perfectly happy as long as she can continue to entertain her like-minded friends and create her awful poetry.


In addition to the numerous one-liners riddled throughout, Sleeper showcases Allen’s talent for physical comedy.  His movements are choreographed chaos, like a modern-day silent comedy.  In fact, Allen originally envisioned Sleeper as a silent film, and several scenes play without dialogue, depending primarily on facial expressions, movement and upbeat jazz music to get the comedy across.   In an early scene Miles makes a bumbling escape from government police that would have made Chaplin or Keaton (Buster, not Diane) proud.  In another brilliant scene, Miles masquerades as a servant drone and hides out in Luna’s house.  Luna and her party guests are so self-absorbed that they don’t even notice the fact that he’s an imposter.   He does his best to blend into the scenery while battling a giant glob of rogue instant pudding in the kitchen or passing around a silver orb with strangely addictive properties. 


Sleeper accomplishes what some of the most effective comedies and science fiction films do – reflecting the time that they’re made while calling out the inherent fallacies in society and absurdities of everyday life.  200 years ago, Miles owned a health food store, but learns that everything that he thought was bad (such as fudge, steak or cigarettes) was actually healthy.   Although the film is clearly a product of another era, it’s interesting to note how many of the jokes are still relevant now.  We’re still a generation of self-obsessed, style-conscious consumers, obsessed about retaining our electronic creature comforts while being concerned about the government’s intervention into our everyday lives. 


Woody Allen’s style has evolved in the past four decades, often adopting an increasingly introspective, darker tone in his later projects as a “serious” filmmaker.  It’s debatable whether he could (or would want to) duplicate some of the more manic aspects that made Sleeper and his earlier, “less mature” films so special.  But it’s difficult to dismiss Sleeper as merely a rough sketch or immature work.  The film retains Allen’s personal touch, but its humor is more accessible.  What’s more, it’s frequently hilarious – something that can’t always be said about his hit-and-miss contemporary comedies.  Sleeper remains one of his best films. 

Thursday, November 24, 2011

November Quick Picks and Pans


Revanche (2008) Despite the title (the French word for “revenge”), writer/director Gotz Spielmann’s drama is more about quietly reflective moments than brash retaliatory acts.  In the opening shot we see ripples in a pond, serving as a metaphor for the events that will shortly follow – one thing cannot occur without creating a series of interrelated occurrences.  Tamara (Irina Potapenko) is an illegal Ukranian immigrant working in a brothel in Austria.  Alex (Johannes Krisch) is her ex-con boyfriend, who does odd jobs around the brothel.  Both dream of a better life, but they appear to be trapped in their current circumstances.  He decides to pull off one more heist by robbing a local bank, assuring her that nothing can go wrong, but it’s clear that this is a terrible idea from the start.  At this point, the story takes an unexpected turn, leading to a cruel twist of fate, in which the lives of Alex and Robert (Andreas Lust), a local policeman, will become inextricably intertwined.  All of the lead performances ring true, with acting that’s natural and unforced.  The plot does not follow a predictable arc, but unfolds at a deliberate pace, tracing Alex and Robert’s feelings of intense guilt.  Spielmann takes the time to weave in a subplot about Alex’s renewed relationship with his estranged grandfather, without derailing the central story.  It’s a sad, but captivating character study of damaged individuals wallowing in pain that they cannot mitigate. 

Rating: **** ½.  Available on DVD and Blu-ray.   


Summer Wars (2009) This imaginative and charming anime film from director Mamoru Hosoda centers around Kenji, a socially awkward high school kid with a gift for solving complex math problems.  He’s more comfortable with computers than people, employed as a low-level monitor for Oz – a ubiquitous virtual environment for work and play, but he soon discovers that his online and physical lives are about to merge.  Meanwhile, in the real world, he agrees to accompany his classmate Natsuki on a trip to the country for a family reunion, to celebrate her great grandmother’s 90th birthday.  He gets more than he’s bargained for, however, when he realizes that she wants him to pose as her fiancé.  In the virtual world, things go from bad to worse when a malicious AI program infiltrates Oz.  The sentient program steals millions of accounts around the world, bringing global commerce to a standstill, and cutting off vital support functions in many governments – and he’s the prime suspect.  The trailer and Netflix description are somewhat misleading.  Although the virtual environment element is certainly prevalent, it’s as much a coming-of-age/family drama as it is a near-future cyberspace film.  Kenji and Natsuki grapple with everyday themes of life, death, love and responsibility – while the fate of the world hangs in the balance.

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


Zebraman (2004) From prolific and versatile director Takashi Miike comes a new kind of superhero story.  Third-grade teacher Shinichi’s (Shô Aikawa) life sucks.  None of his students or school administrators respect him, and his home life isn’t any better.  His wife is cheating on him, his teenage daughter is dating a sociopathic older man, and his son is constantly tormented by fellow classmates because of Shinichi’s less than stellar reputation as a teacher.  Shinichi’s primary solace is dressing up as the title character from a 1978 TV show that only lasted seven episodes due to low ratings.  He finds an ally in a new student in his class, Shinpei, who’s also an ardent Zebraman enthusiast.  He gradually finds himself spending more time with the boy and his single mother, compared to his actual family.  Since this is nominally a superhero movie, there’s a nemesis that Zebraman must face.  An alien invasion is looming on the horizon, with greenish glob-like creatures that hijack the bodies of humans to do their bidding. 

Zebraman suffers from some pacing issues, dragging a bit in the middle.  Also, the relationship between Shinichi and Shinpei’s mom is never fully explored (Is it just platonic or something more?  A dream sequence with her standing beside him as his busty sidekick suggests otherwise.).  Miike’s tongue is firmly planted in his cheek, but the film has respect for its characters, particularly Shinichi, who comes across as more than just a likable goof.  When he finally rises to the challenge of his alter ego, he’s grown substantially.  If you want to be a paragon for others, you need to believe in yourself first.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD.

  
The House With Laughing Windows (1976) This giallo film from director Pupi Avati unfolds slowly (and I mean slowly), but leads to a satisfying conclusion.  Stefano (Lino Capolicchio) arrives in a small town to restore a painting in the cathedral, created by a tortured artist, Buono Legnani (seen in flashbacks), with a grim and shadowy past.  Legnani’s favorite subject matter was death and dying, and there’s a cover-up in the town about the artist’s inspirations.  Truth be told, most of the lugubrious paintings are fairly mediocre (they probably wouldn’t be worthy of hanging in Rod Serling’s Night Gallery), but they serve the purpose of building a sense of mystery.  When Stefano’s friend dies before he can tell him what’s going on, he decides to investigate what looks to be a cover-up by the townspeople.  The House With Laughing Windows starts off with an interesting premise, but gets bogged down in the details.  The film’s sloth-like pace passes for suspense, with too many scenes where absolutely nothing happens.  Faults aside, the climax and payoff at the end are actually quite good, if you can stay awake long enough. 

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Classics Revisited: Mighty Joe Young



(1949) Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack; Written by Ruth Rose; Story by Merian C. Cooper; Starring: Terry Moore, Ben Johnson and Robert Armstrong; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

What’s It About?

What’s the first movie that comes to mind when you think about a big ape?  Okay… What’s the second?  Some might recall Peter Jackson’s flawed remake or maybe even Mighty Peking Man, but for me it’s always been King Kong’s lightweight cousin, Mighty Joe Young.  This underrated fantasy film plays like a semi-sequel to the landmark 1933 film (the less said about Son of Kong, the better), with a more whimsical tone and much greater emphasis on fantasy over bloodshed.


Mighty Joe Young begins in Africa (Yes, just generic “Africa.”  I’m guessing it’s somewhere in the Congo, but it’s hard to tell with all the stock footage of species that would probably live hundreds of miles away.).  We meet a precocious young girl, Jill Young, who lives with her father on a ranch.  When the natives trudge by with a baby gorilla, what’s a girl to do but trade her father’s flashlight for the wee simian?   She names him Joe, and the rest is history.


Skip ahead 12 years, and P.T. Barnum-esque huckster Max O’Hara * (Robert Armstrong) ventures to “godless” Africa with his entourage on a quest for attractions to populate his new nightclub, and wouldn’t you know it?  He winds up in the very same spot in Africa where Jill (now played by Terry Moore) and Joe have been peacefully residing.  Joe has grown to enormous proportions, as in freakishly huge.  Not quite King Kong size, but pretty darned big.  No one stops to speculate about the fact that he’s much larger than any real life gorilla species, but then again, the filmmakers probably assumed that the audience didn’t know or care.  It’s never established what part of Africa they were in, so they presumably figured that 1940s filmgoers would buy anything at that point.

*Armstrong played the very similar Carl Denham 16 years earlier, in King Kong.  Both O’Hara and Denham were modeled after producer/showman Merian C. Cooper, often described as a larger-than-life character himself. 


Ernest B. Schoedsack was no stranger to giant simians, having co-directed King Kong with Merian C. Cooper.  Mighty Joe Young was one of his final projects.  He eyes had been seriously injured during World War II, and according to Moore was almost completely blind when he directed Mighty Joe Young.

Ray Harryhausen, working on his first feature film, predominantly created the Academy Award-winning stop motion effects in Mighty Joe Young, with some assistance by Pete Peterson.  Harryhausen’s artistry really makes Joe come alive, with believable facial expressions and distinctive mannerisms (Joe pounds the ground with his fist when he becomes enraged.).  Nominally under the supervision of Willis O’Brien, Harryhausen improved on his mentor’s work in King Kong, creating an ape with a greater range of movement and personality.  Two different sizes of Joe figures were used for long shots and close-up work: 8-inch and 13-inch. Harryhausen conveyed Joe’s feelings of despair when he’s locked in a dismal cage underneath a nightclub, through subtle changes in posture and lip movements.  Live action footage was skillfully blended with stop motion footage to create the illusion that Joe was interacting with his human co-stars.  In one of my favorite scenes, Joe has a tug-o-war with 10 wrestlers (Guess who wins?).


A strong theme of animal exploitation runs throughout Mighty Joe Young.  The animals exist solely for O’Hara’s profit.  The audience’s sympathies are squarely with Joe, as he’s taken out of his habitat and forced to perform in a gaudy jungle-themed nightclub for drunken patrons.  Jill has acquired a modicum of fame and fortune, but Joe has less than nothing.  Realizing that his spirit is broken, Jill and her cowboy pal Gregg (Ben Johnson) conspire to return him to the wild, where he belongs.  It’s perhaps a little out of character that O’Hara becomes their willing accomplice, but it seems fitting penance for his transgressions.  The fun-to-watch (orange-tinted), but heavy-handed burning orphanage sequence is little more than a contrivance, as a means to demonstrate Joe’s true nature to the pursuing policemen. 


Why It’s Still Relevant:

What makes some films classics while others are relegated to historical footnotes?  In Mighty Joe Young, it’s not the acting, story, or direction, but the lasting imagery, thanks to Harryhausen’s groundbreaking effects work.  While the effects might seem quaint by today’s standards, they represent a personal approach that just isn’t done anymore.  Like many classics, it’s a window to a world that has gone by.  The painstaking art of stop motion animation is still alive and well, thanks especially to Aardman Animations, but it’s no longer the visual effects staple it used to be, supplanted by CGI.  Harryhausen’s work in Mighty Joe Young and other films has served as an inspiration for effects masters for many years, and will probably continue to inspire future generations of artists as long as there is film.


It’s easy to spot the impact that Mighty Joe Young had on filmmakers years later.  When Joe trashes the nightclub, he inadvertently releases several lions.  While most of the lions are only interested in fleeing the area, a couple of the big cats jump on his back.  This mirrors a scene in Jurassic Park, involving a tyrannosaurus rex and two hungry velociraptors. 

Mighty Joe Young is unabashedly corny, melodramatic and culturally insensitive.  It might be a product of a simpler, arguably less enlightened time, but taken in the proper context, it still qualifies as great entertainment.  The film doesn’t carry the tragic weight of King Kong, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  Like the old TV commercial goes, it’s less filling, and tastes great.  It’s a terrific choice for family film night or just for admiring an old master at the top of his form.