Monday, January 31, 2011

January Quick Picks and Pans

Delicatessen (1991) Directors Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Amelie, City of Lost Children) established their eccentric, signature style in this darkly comic feature film debut, which would serve as their calling card for future projects.  The setting is France, presumably in the not-so-distant future, after some sort of global catastrophe, and most of the action takes place in a gloomy, run-down apartment building.  The building’s tenants participate in a conspiracy of murder and cannibalism perpetrated by the building manager/butcher, who operates a delicatessen on the first floor.  Dominique Pinon stars as a former circus clown named Louison, who accepts a position as the new building handyman.  Louison is initially unaware that his predecessors have met their untimely demise, ending up on the delicatessen’s menu.  He wins the affections of one of the tenants, Julie, who also happens to be the daughter of his employer.  Pinon reacts to his strange surroundings like a mix of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, lending his character an inspired combination of humor, physicality and pathos.  In many ways, Delicatessen plays like one of the great classic silent comedies, with its reliance on numerous visual gags throughout.  There’s certainly enough visual and audio inventiveness for a dozen movies here as things come crashing down, literally, to their inevitable conclusion.  In the midst of everything, we are treated to a spectacle of bumbling government employees, frightened apartment tenants, and a clash with counter culture troglodytes who dwell in the sewers beneath the city.  Outside of other Caro/Jeunet films, there’s nothing else quite like it.  Highly recommended for those who prefer a healthy dose of lunacy in their film diet.

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

Yokai Monsters: Spook Warfare (1968): Feudal Japan provides the backdrop in this fantasy for all ages, combining ancient Japanese folklore and lots of rubber suits.  Things get hot and heavy when the evil Babylonian spirit Daimon takes over a Japanese coastal village.  He first kills the local magistrate and assumes his likeness, freeing him to terrorize the village residents and live off of their blood.  Can anyone stop his fiendish reign?  It’s up to a group of local spirits, led by the excitable water sprite Kappa (who resembles a frog/duck/turtle hybrid) to fight Daimon, and set things right.  Kappa’s fellow spirits are no less bizarre, including an umbrella creature, stretchy necked woman, and a being that displays moving images on his belly like some sort of proto-Teletubby.  Will they succeed in defeating Daimon, or is he here to stay?  It’s all a little silly, but oddly charming.  Taken in the right frame of mind, it’s perfect for late night viewing or as an alternative choice for family movie night.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD.

Invasion of the Bee Girls (1973): The cheesy title evokes grade Z horror flicks of the 50s, but with all the excesses of the free-wheeling 70s.  We are introduced to a coven (hive?) of bee-infused women who awkwardly seduce men to their deaths in a small California town.  Invasion of the Bee Girls (also known as Graveyard Tramps) attempts to be an erotic thriller with social satire and fails miserably on both counts.  All of the male characters appear to be driven solely by their libidos, while the women are little more than objects for their clumsy sexual advances.  The default protagonist is an FBI investigator played by William Smith, who’s been tasked with investigating the mysterious male deaths.  I suppose his character was written to be cool and assertive, but he just comes across as smug and misogynistic.  None of the bee girls seem to have a distinct personality, which I presume is the point.  Considering the lack of ethnic diversity in the female leads, maybe it should have been called Invasion of the WASP Girls?    There’s a half-assed attempt to provide a scientific explanation for what’s going on, but it makes about as much sense as most 50s era invasion movies.  It should have been good dumb fun, but just ended up being dumb. Surprisingly, the screenplay is a first effort by Nicholas Meyer, who would go on to do much bigger and better things (Time After Time, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan), and would likely disavow this film’s existence if you asked him.  I guess everyone had to start someplace. I don’t think this obscure example of early 70s dreck was ever intended to be watched while sober.

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

Gothic (1986): What transpired during one fateful night in 1816 when Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Shelley (played by Gabriel Byrne, Julian Sands and Natasha Richardson, respectively) engaged in a friendly competition to create the most frightening story?  This historic meeting of the minds has often been attributed to be the genesis of Mary Shelley’s creation of her defining work, Frankenstein.  It’s a fascinating premise that gets squandered, no thanks to director Ken Russell and his fondness for excess.  The story seems almost improvised, and the end result is a confusing mess filled with hallucinations and debauchery without much substance.  Instead of a thoughtful examination of the fantasies and inner demons that plagued these Romantic writers, we’re left with Natasha Richardson running around in a nightie and looking bewildered.  Any conjecture by a first-year English literature student would probably be more provocative and coherent.  Unless you have a burning desire to see Timothy Spall (better known as Wormtail in the Harry Potter films) naked, I’d steer clear of this one. 

Rating: * ½.  Available on DVD.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wish List for a New Decade

“Meet the new boss.  Same as the old boss,” so goes the old Who song.  In the movies, as well as life, the more things change, the more things stay the same.  As I’ve gotten older, I feel less anticipation for the big summer tentpole flicks, and look forward to the films that arrive on the scene with little or no hype, seemingly coming from nowhere.  With the exception of some notable independent productions, there aren’t many surprises.  I’ve probably seen the same movies hundreds of times, albeit with different settings, actors, and slightly different situations.  The old formulas basically don’t change.  Although the technology is different, they’re still pushing the same buttons now as they did a century ago.

Most of the films that come out of Hollywood are products intended for mass consumption.  Generally speaking, the film companies like to play it safe.  By design, not much will change.  Modern audiences still seem to be triggered by many of the same cues that triggered audiences a century ago.  The big budget releases are still populated by pretty actresses and prettier actors, melodramatic plots, and less deserving films will win the Oscars.  So what’s changed in audiences today?  They’re arguably more sophisticated than the audiences of decades ago, with regard to many of the technical aspects that are displayed on-screen, such as sets, costumes and special effects.  It certainly takes more to frighten them now -- rubber suit monsters or simple eye makeup won’t cut it.  They also seem to have shorter attention spans, which explains all the scenes filled with stuff blowing up and headache inducing quick cuts.  Of course, this is nothing new.  Even the major studios can surprise me from time to time.  And let’s face it, my tastes are fairly simple.  Most of the time, all I ask is for them to hit the right notes, which seems increasingly harder to do.  As we enter the second decade of the 21st century, here are a few of my hopes for the direction of film:

Fewer Superhero Movies

Don’t get me wrong.  I love superhero movies in moderation.  I count Superman: The Movie, X-Men 2, Spider-Man 2, The Dark Knight and the first Iron Man among some of my favorites.  I also think that the whole genre is rapidly wearing out its welcome, and in desperate need of a vacation.  It’s an overcrowded field, with offerings from DC, Marvel, and the smaller comic book publishers jostling for filmgoers’ dollars.  This year is shaping up to be no exception, with Green Hornet already in theaters, Green Lantern, Thor and X-Men: First Class slated for summer release, and many others in production or at least in the pipeline to be produced (the Spider-Man reboot, The Dark Knight Rises, etc…).  It’s been said that the superhero movie has become the new western, but like the western, it’s getting a little tired, and due to be reinvented.  I propose a five-year hiatus on the production of any new superhero movies.  Let them come back with something new to say.

“Holy retread Batman!”

More Original Stories

Remakes, Re-imaginings, reboots, sequels.  Whatever you prefer to call them, it’s all the same -- more like retreads.  Why create something entirely new when you can build on what has already been done?  If the movie was even mildly successful at the box office, or if it had a second life in video sales, chances are there will be a sequel.  If it’s a film property from 20 or 30 years ago, why not do a remake?  Practically the entire John Carpenter catalog has been remade or is in the process of being remade -- poorly. 

The last decade saw the term “reboot” enter our collective lexicon.  It’s the studios’ way of saying: “Okay, we admit we screwed up the first time, but we fixed it.  Honest!”
With the misfire of Spider-Man 3, the heads at Sony Studios were determined to wipe the slate clean and start over with a new cast and director.  But does anyone really care at this point? 

Roger Ebert’s Little Film Glossary referred to a sequel as a “filmed deal.”  Most sequels are little more than a blatant money grab, although flowers can still manage to rise from manure.  Of course, the sequel is really nothing new.  Asking for fewer sequels would be like asking McDonald’s to stop selling so many burgers.  It’s a nice idea, but it’s not going to happen.

An Emphasis on Content

Film technology has grown exponentially in the past thirty years, arguably producing a more uniform picture and better sound.  Meanwhile, some movie theaters seem to be following the Alamo Drafthouse’s lead, bucking the cookie-cutter sameness of the local cineplex, and providing a better experience for the filmgoer.  What hasn’t improved recently is the quality of the film product.  Some would have you believe that the filmmakers have more tools at their disposal, but if the minds behind them are bankrupt, these tools will sit idle.

Hollywood is over-reliant on CGI.  Pixar and Weta have shown that it can be a fundamental component or serve to enhance a story.  On the downside, CGI can often look bad, overwhelming the viewer or creating creatures that don’t even appear to be existing on the same plane as the real-life actors.  As Marty McFly commented in Back to the Future II, (the shark) “still looks fake.”  Similarly, the work of traditional matte artists has seemingly gone the way of the dodo, replaced by completely rendered digital worlds that look dead (300 or Gladiator, for example), replete with sterile landscapes and washed out colors.  The digital paintbrush has supplanted the real paintbrush, but with no better results.

Practical effects can look rubbery or move unconvincingly, but you have to admire the craftsmanship.  The amazing work by Rob Bottin in John Carpenter’s The Thing, is one example of effects work at its best.  There’s something to be said for effects that you could conceivably touch and feel, rather than something created on a computer screen.

The stop-motion handiwork of Ray Harryhausen (The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts) or Willis O’Brien (the 1933 King Kong), for example, may not have looked “real,” especially to a jaded modern audience, but there is something amazing about it.  The stop motion effects were literally handcrafted and painstakingly animated, frame by frame.  If the creatures were not really flesh and blood, they were the closest thing to it.  We can’t go back, of course.  Filmmaking has evolved to a degree, and so have the audiences.  But we have to ask ourselves, where’s it all going?


Maybe a return to basics wouldn’t be such a bad idea when it comes to presentation.  Every so often, the studios decide that there’s going to be a Next Big Thing, and that filmgoers will want to pay a premium to enjoy it.  This includes the wave of 3D movies that have been shoved down our collective throats during the past couple of years, or turning the cinematic experience into a theme park attraction (D-BOX).  Most of these so-called innovations reek of hollow gimmickry that add nothing to the story and only serve to inflate admission prices.  William Castle would have been proud.

An Immersive Audience Experience – Circa 1903

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Future of Home Video?

If Netflix has their way, we’ll all be watching our movies through a streaming device rather than a disc-based format (Read more here, here, or here.).  They paint a rosy picture when everything will be at our fingertips, and we will no longer need to reach for a physical copy in order to watch it.  The question remains, however: What will be lost in the process?  There’s been a lot of talk about the problem of bandwidth, and how they will be able to keep up with the increased traffic, or the quality of presentation in streaming compared to a Blu-Ray disc, but there’s another issue that no one seems to be talking about.  What about the extras?

In the glory days of laserdisc, one of the big draws compared to VHS was the myriad of special features that could be found on the more deluxe editions (think Alien, Aliens, and The Nightmare Before Christmas, to name a few).  The average Joe or Joanne didn’t exactly embrace laserdisc, but it paved the way for DVD, which included many of the kinds of special features that could only be found on laserdisc, along with improved picture and sound, and the occasional Easter eggs.  Granted, I didn’t always have time to listen to the director’s commentary, and certainly didn’t look at all of the special features every single time I popped in my discs, but I was sure glad that they were there when I wanted them.

Physical Media: A Dying Breed?

Extras are not even a consideration when watching streaming movies.  It’s all about the feature, and nothing else.  No more commentaries, no trailers, no featurettes or stills.  All of this will be lost.  I doubt the folks at Netflix plan to provide this extra content on their site, nor will the studios bother to host it.  Nope, the extra will be a dying breed, and we’ll be back to the good old days of VHS, when we were just happy to have the movie.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Straight Story

(1999) Directed by David Lynch; Written by John Roach and Mary Sweeney; Starring: Richard Farnsworth, Sissy Spacek and Harry Dean Stanton;
Available formats: DVD

Rating: ****

The G-rated, Disney-produced docudrama The Straight Story might just be David Lynch’s most shocking effort to date.  It’s an unusual story, simply told, by a director who has made his career out of being unconventional.  There are no nitrous oxide-inhaling sociopaths or mutant babies here; just an old man who wishes to visit his ailing brother.  The middle-America setting is not unfamiliar to Lynch, but unlike some of his other films, none of the locals seem to possess an alternate agenda or lurid secrets hidden behind the modest white shuttered homes.

We begin with an aerial view of the rural town, slowly descending on the house where 73-year-old Alvin Straight lives.  He is presented with a dilemma when he learns that his estranged brother Lyle has had a stroke.  Alvin is losing his eyesight, unable to walk without canes, and suffering from what his doctor presumes to be emphysema.  He may not have much time to live himself, but he decides that he must visit his brother who lives more than 200 miles away.  He’s unable to drive a car due to his eyesight, and too independent to accept a ride from anyone.  His ancient riding mower is the only choice left.  The story would have seemed contrived, if not for the fact that the events actually occurred.

After his original mower dies, Alvin purchases a 1966 John Deere riding mower to embark on the improbable trek from his home in Laurens, Iowa to Mt. Zion, Wisconsin.  Richard Farnsworth is perfect in the role of Alvin Straight.  Sadly, he was dying of cancer when this film was made, lending an element of veracity to his character that could never be as convincing if played by a different actor.  Farnsworth manages to convey a brooding, melancholy tone as a man dealing with his own mortality, while confronting unfinished business in the most pragmatic way possible.  We don’t feel artificial sentimentality for his character, but simply accept his situation as he does.

Straight lives with his middle-aged daughter, played by Sissy Spacek.  We learn that her four children were taken away when she was deemed mentally unfit, although it is never made explicitly clear what her affliction is.  She displays a stilted speech pattern and seems overly literal-minded, but possesses a keen eye for details.  We don’t have the typical scene where she confronts her father about his foolhardy plan.  There’s no tearful goodbye.  It’s the only option left to him, and she shares his pragmatic outlook.  Straight and his brother have not spoken in ten years, because of an alcohol-fueled argument that drove a wedge between their relationship, but this doesn’t matter now. 

We’re subtly reminded that this is a David Lynch film by the small details, such as a tractor wheel turning round and round, or a shot of the starry night sky that lingers long enough for us to contemplate what’s up there.  Lynch had a hand in the sound design, and it shows.  Extra attention has been devoted to the sounds in the film, from a massive thunderclap to a crashing car, to a few strategically placed industrial noises.  The sounds are immediate and jarring, reminding you of the power of nature or how quickly life can take an unexpected turn.  Your home theater will actually get a brief workout in places.  The score by frequent Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti (Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet) gently accompanies the story, without attempting to overwhelm.

Straight’s mower progresses at a snail’s pace along the highway, and he notices things that most of us would normally take for granted, zipping along at 65 miles per hour.  He confronts what we consciously avoid as we speed from one point to another, talking about the meaning of family to a pregnant runaway or witnessing the death of a deer on the road.  The Straight Story has some of the earmarks of a classic road picture, without the usual banter between mismatched buddies or silly interludes.  Most of Straight’s dialogue is internal, with the occasional stop along the road to process his thoughts with strangers.  During one stopover, Straight pauses to talk to a group of young cyclists, commenting that the worst thing about being old was remembering what it was like to be young.  He urges them to enjoy their youth, and not think about old age.

With many David Lynch films, it seems that there’s an underlying, impenetrable in-joke that maybe a select few truly grasp.  Maybe the inherent joke with The Straight Story was that he could make a more-or-less “conventional” film, and that it took someone like Lynch to tell this story simply and without added embellishments or saccharine emotions.  Lynch avoids the typical clichés that often make “true life” stories appear trite or manipulative.  There are no throwaway pop songs to artificially boost the mood or swelling of the musical score to cue the audience into Straight’s personal triumphs or defeats.  There are no requisite scenes of the residents of his home town glued to their TV screens, watching his progress as it’s conveniently chronicled by a local news team, or Straight’s tractor followed by a throng of cheering groupies and well-wishers.  The subject material could have been alternately milked for laughs or sympathy, but Lynch hits the notes that matter in a film that transcends its genre with a meditation on old age, family responsibility and singular determination.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

The Psychotronic Connection

So, why am I completely obsessed with movies – especially the zero-budget stuff that no one else gives a hoot about?   It’s been a two-decades-long slow burn, ignited by Michael Weldon’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film and its evolutionary follow-up, The Psychotronic Video Guide.  Although they’re seldom mentioned today, I don’t think the influence of these two seminal volumes can be overestimated.  Weldon’s relative absence from the web belies the fact that his groundbreaking books paved the way for writing about the unloved films, and that his lasting legacy resides in the soul of virtually every blog that has devoted space to the love of B movies.

Michael Weldon virtually created a template for spreading the word on cinema’s hidden treasures and trash in a digestible format.  1983’s The Psychotronic Encyclopedia of Film is evocative of an era not too long ago, when movies weren’t so accessible.  Until the last couple of decades, most of these movies were out of reach, and you had to be content with reading the descriptions.  Unless you had your own movie theater and could secure film prints for your private collection, you were prisoner to the whims of others for your viewing choices.  Either you caught it the first time around in the theater, waited for it to hit the revival circuit, or maybe on late night TV.  It was often by sheer chance that you might actually stumble upon one of the movies mentioned in the guide.  Obviously, the advent of home video changed all of that, and Weldon reflected this paradigm shift in a new volume, 1996’s The Psychotronic Video Guide. 

If you wanted to learn about what existed beyond the mainstream in the pre-internet world, books and magazines were your primary sources of information.  Both volumes opened my eyes and mind to a bigger world, serving as the definitive guides for my exploration of overlooked cinema from the last century.  It was here that I learned about the lesser-known works of the smaller studios including Hammer, Amicus and Monogram, to name just a few, and came to appreciate the contributions of Roger Corman and William Castle.  The Psychotronic guides were part encyclopedia to underground film, part film history, and part B-movie tribute, loaded with obscure behind-the-scenes facts.  It’s a testament to the depth of Weldon’s research that he was able to compile such a dense and comprehensive overview of film without the benefit of Google or Wikipedia.

I still regard both Psychotronic guides as the definitive sources for B-movie information today.  Flipping through their worn covers and dog-eared pages are sheer film geek bliss.  Their wealth of information remains unmatched by anything else in print or on the web.  When I read about an obscure title on the web, I’ll invariably cross-reference it in one of the Psychotronic guides, and probably nine times out of ten, there will be an entry.

Weldon’s views were not infallible, but it’s his DIY approach that lent the Psychotronic guides their charm.  Some of his opinions were dubious -- He held Battle Beyond the Stars in higher esteem, compared to the much bigger budget Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.  His reviews could also be inconsistent.  Some provided the bare facts, while others would provide a tidbit of background information or a snippet of trivia that wouldn’t be covered in a more polished critique.  What consistently shined through was his bias for championing the little-seen or underappreciated films that the rest of the world, especially the snobbish mainstream press, overlooked.  He obviously wasn’t interested in the standard mass-appeal Hollywood blockbusters, but did not necessarily dismiss big-budget productions and uniformly praise low-budget movies.  He especially valued ingenuity and originality, elements that were often lacking in Hollywood’s more mainstream offerings.  Bigger was not always better, and low budget did not always mean cheesy. 

There was a refreshing lack of judgment in Weldon’s reviews.  He did not often delineate between “good” and “bad” films.  Weldon treated John Waters or Herschell Gordon Lewis with the same sort of respect that more “highbrow” writers would have devoted to Akira Kurosawa or Francois Truffaut.  This reflects a more inclusive, eclectic definition of what makes a great film.  He did not necessarily overlook the time honored classics, but redefined what constituted a classic.  The Psychotronic approach to movies was a very personal, singular vision.  Weldon often wore his preferences on his sleeve, with his fondness for what others deemed “schlock cinema”: low budget horror, mondo documentaries, depictions of the youth music scene, B-thrillers, and 70s exploitation.  He also shrewdly identified the cyclical nature of certain film trends.  Even though times changed, tastes were cyclical.  Things went in cycles with regard to 3D movies, teen rebellion flicks, manufactured movie stars (he once alluded to Arnold Schwarzenegger as Steve Reeves with a better agent), or pushing the boundaries of what’s regarded as good taste.

Will we ever see a third Psychotronic guide?  Judging by the space between the first and second volumes, it should be due just about now, although it’s debatable whether this will ever see the light of day.  Will we ever see another Michael Weldon?  Likely not, but we’ll always have these two volumes that serve as his legacy, and I’ll always be grateful for the unofficial education they provided about neglected pockets of film history that refuse to fade away.