Wednesday, February 29, 2012

February Quick Picks and Pans

Microcosmos (1996) This French documentary is a fascinating window into a world that most of us ignore. The stunning macrophotography brings us closer than most of us would ever care to be to ants, wasps, spiders, and many other long-legged beasties.  Except for the brief narration at the beginning and end, there’s no voiceover.  Instead, the filmmakers allow the critters to speak for themselves, with a cacophony of buzzing, clicks and chirps.  It’s an intimate profile that might as well be transmissions from an alien planet.  If you ever wondered what snail courtship looked like (and even if you didn’t), this could be the movie for you. Watching Microcosmos is a haunting, beautiful, meditative experience like no other. 

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

X: The Man with the X-Ray Eyes (1963) Roger Corman directed this thought-provoking cautionary tale, and it’s easily among his best films.  Ray Milland stars as Dr. James Xavier, a researcher who develops eye drops that enable him to see far beyond the visible spectrum.  It’s filled with 60s kitsch and some dicey special effects, but the compelling story about good intentions gone awry shines through. Milland turns in a commanding performance as the scientist who sees too much.  Even when the effects fail to convince, we’re drawn in by Milland’s portrayal of the tortured Dr. Xavier.  His transformation and existential journey are reminiscent of the titular character in The Incredible Shrinking Man, as he follows a one-way road into oblivion.  The DVD contains the original five-minute prologue, which was wisely excised from the beginning of the film, and included as an extra.  It’s easy to see why this ham-handed and completely extraneous segment was omitted after the initial theatrical run.  Be sure to watch for bit parts by Don Rickles as an exploitive sideshow talker and Corman regular Dick Miller as a heckler.

Rating: ****.  Available on DVD

Monks – The Transatlantic Feedback (2006) Lucia Palacios and Dietmar Post chronicle the brief rise and fall of largely unknown proto-punk band The Monks.  The documentary blends interviews with the original band members and vintage footage to create a composite.  We learn how they met in early 60s Germany while serving in the U.S. Army, and we’re provided with some interesting background information about the political climate of the time, involving JFK and cold war tensions.  When they were eventually discharged, the former soldiers decided to stay in Germany and attempted to break into the thriving rock scene.  Thanks to some unconventional marketing techniques, they developed their inimitable musical style and appearance. 

The filmmakers seem to assume that the viewer has previous knowledge of the subject matter.  As a result, the film doesn’t do a very good job of introducing the band members, and it’s difficult to keep their names straight.  The individual members’ backstories are fairly superficial, leaving me to wonder if the filmmakers could have dug a little deeper.  Also, the film includes too many fragments, rather than complete songs.  Nevertheless, it’s a fascinating portrait of a little-known band that was truly before their time.  It’s great fun to see them performing in New York, 30 years after they broke up, for a one-off gig (Coincidentally, they never played in the States during their initial run).  In the end, the film feels as if it’s not the definitive word on The Monks, but it’s probably the best documentary we’re likely to see about them.

Rating: *** ½.  Available on DVD

Suburbia (1983) Penelope Spheeris’ clunky, yet affable tale about a group of wayward teens plays like an early 80s era Rebel Without a Cause.   Spurned by the rest of society, the teens cohabitate in an abandoned house and form a sense of community amidst the backdrop of the L.A. punk scene.  While the acting only ranges from subpar to passable (many of the performers were not professional actors), the main characters look like distinctive, rather than generic punks.  This can probably be credited to Spheeris, who was responsible for the seminal documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, and obviously harbors a lot of affection for the characters.  The teens refer to themselves as TR (The Rejected), and seem more misguided and confused than dangerous.  They’re contrasted by a couple of gun-toting rednecks, who threaten their way of life.  It’s not the most original story, but the setting is unique and oddly nostalgic (if you happened to grow up in 80s L.A., like I did).  Watch for a young Flea (listed in the credits as Mike B. the Flea).

Rating: ***.  Available on DVD

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Classics Revisited: Suspiria

(1977) Directed by Dario Argento; Written by Dario Argento and Daria Nicolodi; Starring: Jessica Harper, Stefania Casini and Flavio Bucci; Available on DVD

Rating: **** ½

What’s It About?

Dario Argento is responsible for creating some of the most distinctive films in the horror/mystery/suspense genres, establishing his distinctive style in Tenebre, The Bird with the Crystal Plumage and Deep Red.  Unfortunately, these high points have frequently been offset by an inordinate number of mediocre titles.  While his overall career has been inconsistent, Suspiria is generally regarded as his undisputed masterpiece.  Admittedly, my first impression of Suspiria wasn’t very positive.  After my initial viewing, I wondered what all the fuss was about.  The film seemed slow and pretentious – just the sort of thing that film students loved and everyone else disliked.  But I didn’t realize at the time that it had planted a seed in my unconscious.  Like an album that gets better during repeated listenings, I found that the film revealed its true nature during successive viewings.

Simply put, Suspiria is the depiction of a waking nightmare.  As with most Argento films, story or narrative coherence take a back seat to mood and atmosphere.  There’s often little room left over for logic.  The plot for Suspiria could easily be summarized in one sentence: A young American woman travels to an exclusive dance academy in Germany, only to encounter a coven of witches.  Jessica Harper plays the student, Suzy Bannion, with wide-eyed innocence.  She’s trapped in a hostile, alien place where she doesn’t belong, lorded over by a staff with dubious intentions. 

Luciano Tovoli’s stunning cinematography helps maintain an unearthly, disturbing tone throughout.  Argento wanted Tovoli to use Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs as a guide to his film’s color scheme, which seems oddly appropriate, given Suspiria’s fairy tale-like quality.  The film prints were also printed with outdated 3-strip Technicolor equipment to further accentuate Suspiria’s unique look, which is dominated by lurid reds, blues and greens.  There’s nothing subtle about the movie’s expressionistic approach, which relies heavily on the juxtaposition of expansive sets with extreme close-ups for shock value.  Even the gruesome deaths (an Argento staple) have a bizarre poetry, in a Grand Guignol sort of way.  Blood flows freely in several scenes – I’ll leave you to come up with your own Freudian interpretations.

A great deal of Suspiria’s creepy atmosphere can also be attributed to the unnerving experimental score by Dario Argento and Goblin (who would go on to do the music for Dawn of the Dead the following year).  Eerie voices, loud noises and strange instruments combine at a droning, relentless pace to weave their way under your skin.  It’s one of the most memorable horror scores of any age, and I’m left to speculate whether the film would have been half as effective without it (The music alone merits an extra star).  

Why It’s Still Relevant:

In a time when few modern horror movies are genuinely scary, it’s worthwhile to reflect on the aspects that make Suspiria so effective.  Argento realizes that simplicity works best, preying on our subconscious fears about the terrors that lie in the dark.  At some point, the viewer finds it virtually impossible to be a passive participant, once the movie’s macabre charms take hold.  It’s a film that’s experienced as much as it’s watched, akin to   walking through a haunted house attraction where dread lies at every corridor’s twist and turn.  Suzy is our unwitting tour guide through this nightmarish edifice, with her little-girl-lost persona.  

Suspiria represented the first of the “Three Mothers” trilogy (continuing with 1980’s Inferno and concluding with 2007’s Mother of Tears), although the latter two movies have never been regarded in the same esteem.  While Dario Argento’s career has appeared to suffer a downhill slide over the years, he clearly captured lightning in a bottle with Suspiria.  This is an example of the director at the top of his game, when ambitions and ability intersected positively.  Although he never quite returned to this level of greatness again, he achieved with this film what many other so-called horror maestros have attempted and failed to create – a strangely beautiful and unforgettable cinematic experience.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

The Once Over Twice: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou

(2004) Directed by Wes Anderson; Written by Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach; Starring: Bill Murray, Anjelica Houston, Cate Blanchett, Owen Wilson, Willem Dafoe and Jeff Goldblum; Available on DVD. 
Rating: **** ½

One of the reasons that I started The Once Over Twice feature was to showcase films that slipped away from the public consciousness for one reason or another.  Another reason was purely selfish – affording me the opportunity to get on my soapbox about personal favorites that I considered to be underrated and unloved.  Wes Anderson’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou easily falls into this category, being one of those “love it or hate it” affairs.  It’s not as readily accessible as the more lauded (and somewhat overrated) Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums, but that just seems more alluring to me. 

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou had a short theatrical run, vanishing quickly with a lukewarm reception and poor box office receipts.  In retrospect, it isn’t too difficult to see why it failed to strike a chord with mainstream audiences or critics with its singularly eccentric vibe.  While the film was clearly not for everyone, I have an alternate theory why it wasn’t embraced by the masses.  You see, I believe that this film was made expressly for me to address my specific sensibilities.  I can vividly recall watching the Jacques-Yves Cousteau documentaries on television back in the 70s, fascinated by his crew and their various undersea adventures (which served as the inspiration for Anderson’s film).  Almost a decade later, I was called upon to “design” an oceanographic research vessel for my junior high Oceanography class, and I based it heavily on Cousteau’s ship, the Calypso (which becomes the Belafonte in the film).  I think it’s safe to say that I was primed to appreciate this film decades before it was released.  And then there’s that little homage at the end of the film, but more on that later. 

Bill Murray turns in one of his best performances as the eponymous Steve Zissou.  He’s sort of an alternate universe Cousteau, sporting a woolen red cap and touring the world with his hand-selected team of ocean explorers.  We first meet Zissou at a film festival in Italy, premiering his latest undersea documentary to an ambivalent crowd.  He’s somewhat past his prime, and he knows it.  He seems ready to hang up his cap once he’s made one more film, and possibly regained some of what he’s lost.  Zissou isn’t a very likable person – self-centered, self-aggrandizing, and always looking for the perfect opportunity to exploit his life drama as potential documentary fodder.  He browbeats pregnant * reporter Jane Winslett-Richardson (Cate Blanchett), who’s there to do a biographical piece on her one-time idol.   Meanwhile, in an Ahab-like turn, he vows to locate and kill the mythical jaguar shark that he deems responsible for killing his friend and crewmember Esteban (not a particularly progressive stance for someone who’s devoted his life to promoting the conservation of nature). 

* Fun note: In an unplanned coincidence, Blanchett was actually pregnant during the shoot.

Zissou’s life takes another unexpected twist when Ned Plimpton (Owen Wilson) walks into his life, claiming to be his son.  The film never firmly establishes whether or not Ned is actually related, but something seems to click.  Zissou invites Ned to join his “pack of strays,” much to the chagrin of some of the more seasoned crewmembers, but he eventually finds his own niche.  We witness some growth in Zissou, thanks to Ned, perhaps because he’s gained something he never thought he needed.  Ned represents the better, nobler half of Zissou that’s locked away from the rest of the world.

In true Wes Anderson fashion, the rest of the ensemble performances are suitably impressive.  Jeff Goldblum is Zissou’s wealthy archrival Alistair Hennessey, who circumnavigates the globe with his comparatively more upscale Operation Hennessey team.  Operation Hennessey is sort of the Camp Mohawk to Team Zissou’s Camp North Star (using an analogy from an earlier Murray-starring vehicle).  Anjelica Houston is Zissou’s estranged wife (and Hennessey’s ex-wife), Eleanor.  In addition to providing Zissou with the funding to continue his endeavors, she’s the obvious brains of the organization.  Bud Cort, unrecognizable from his Harold and Maude days, is amusing as Bill Ubell (aka: the Bond Company Stooge).  Willem Dafoe and Michael Gambon, as quick-tempered crewmember Klaus Daimler and film producer Oseary Drakoulias respectively, are also suitably fun in their supporting roles.

Anderson’s film is filled with many inspired touches that skirt reality and fantasy.  In an early scene, we’re treated to a tour of the Belafonte, which resembles a cutaway illustration brought to life.  Several stop-motion animation sequences by Henry Selick are utilized to depict some of the more fanciful (and completely fictitious) denizens of the deep, such as a crayon ponyfish or the elusive jaguar shark.  The more fantastical scenes help maintain a sense of unreality that might be too much for some or even considered self-indulgent, but they always hit the right notes for me.

Speaking of notes, the soundtrack employs the usual eclectic assortment of choice vintage rock tracks that has become a Wes Anderson staple, accompanied by Mark Mothersbaugh’s lively synth score.  Although several artists are featured, it’s the music of David Bowie that takes center stage.  Several of his songs are prominently featured, throughout the film, along with inspired Portuguese-language re-interpretations by Brazilian singer Seu Jorge (who also plays a member of the Zissou crew, Pelé dos Santos). 

Some critics accused The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou of being too whimsical – as if that were a bad thing.  Many of Anderson’s choices are very cinematic, choosing style over realism.  The frequent surreal lapses remind us that perception (whether it’s examining Zissou’s celebrity or the exploration of the alien ocean environment) is in the eye of the beholder.  Anderson wears his influences on his sleeve (In the DVD commentary, he cites Fellini, who was never afraid to test the boundaries of reality, as one of the filmmakers whose work inspired this movie).  It’s probably the final scene that cements my affection for this movie, however, with a direct nod to another one of my personal favorites, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banazai: Across the Eighth Dimension.  References aside, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou remains one of the most imaginative Wes Anderson films (rivaled only by The Fantastic Mr. Fox), and it’s the one I like to revisit the most.   

Monday, February 13, 2012


(1981) Written and directed by George A. Romero; Starring: Ed Harris, Gary Lahti, Brother Blue, Amy Ingersoll, Tom Savini and Patricia Tallman; Available on DVD

Rating: ** ½

This low-budget curiosity by writer/director George Romero represents a departure from his usual horror forte, bridging the gap between Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow.  Depending on your point of view, it’s a cult classic or a spectacular failure, with its Easy Rider meets Excalibur (which coincidentally came out the same year) vibe.  If nothing else, Romero is to be applauded for the sheer chutzpah of bringing his unconventional epic to the big screen.  It’s the consummate independent film – with a singular, uncompromising vision that would never have received the green light from the major studios.

Knightriders focuses on a roving troupe of latter-day knights on motorcycles, led by their charismatic “king” Billy (ably played by Ed Harris).  The knights move from town to town, staging jousting matches and performing death-defying stunts to small-town crowds.  Billy keeps the group together by upholding a chivalrous code that’s completely out of step with modern society.  If this premise sounds a bit ridiculous, then you’re not alone.  Romero’s film is unbridled insanity all the way, peppered with sporadic moments of inspiration.

Harris really gives his all to the role of Billy, endowing the character with more weight than the material probably deserves.  You never get the feeling that he felt he was above the proceedings, providing a straightforward interpretation that never once lapses into camp.  His impassioned performance hits one of the few right notes in Knightriders.  Billy is completely immersed in a world of his own creation.  He lives (and is willing to die) by his ideals, viewing his way of life as a tribute to an ancient, honorable era.  He bristles at the notion that he and his troupe are simply stunt performers like Evel Knievel, but are actually carrying out a profound mission.  He dismisses comparisons to cult leaders Charles Manson and Jim Jones, but the likeness isn’t entirely inaccurate.  You might question why anyone would follow Billy on his quixotic, self-destructive path, which flies in the face of a world that’s hostile or at least indifferent to his cause.  At some point Billy goes beyond simple idealism, lapsing into the realm of a severely delusional mind.  His long-suffering girlfriend Linet (Amy Ingersoll) confides that she fell in love with him, not his code.

Frequent Romero collaborator Tom Savini plays Billy’s archrival Morgan.  He covets Billy’s throne, but he doesn’t share the same high-minded view of the troupe.  He takes a more realistic view, understanding that he’s here for the spectacle, and concerned about the direction he’s going personally and professionally.  His decidedly more pragmatic stance puts him at odds with some of Billy’s loyal followers.  When he’s accused of being in love with himself, he provides the film’s best line: “…I gotta love myself.  Everyone else thinks I’m a bastard.”  Although Morgan often comes across as a capricious rogue, his character is significantly more stable (and arguably more likable) than Billy.  Morgan is set up to confront Billy in a battle of wills that ends up more disappointing than climactic.

One of the high points in Knightriders is the supporting role by folklorist Brother Blue as the troupe’s wise and enigmatic doctor Merlin.  He senses Billy’s madness, but is bound by his unwavering dedication to Billy and the troupe.  He patches him up but clearly understands that it’s only a matter of time before Billy’s actions will lead to something that can’t be repaired with a few stitches.  Of all the characters in the movie, I wished he had received more screen time.  IMDB lists Merlin as his solitary feature film role, which is too bad, since he lends a relaxed, quietly noble presence.

Knightriders is a bold attempt that eventually flounders.  At nearly two and a half hours, it feels bloated, as if Romero didn’t know when to cut or just couldn’t part with any of the footage that had been shot.  Many of the motorcycle riding scenes seem interminable, while scenes devoted to some of the minor characters just seem extraneous.  The film stumbles along at an uneven pace, leading up to an overlong final battle that fizzles into anticlimax.  While the film isn’t a total loss, taking into account its eccentric charms, I can’t really recommend it without reservations.  Romero completists and fans of the truly bizarre will probably find a lot to like, while many will likely scratch their heads.  I’m not exactly sure what Romero was trying to say, but I’m glad he said it (I suppose). 

* Watch for the Stephen King cameo in one of the early scenes.  His hammy little bit of scenery chewing reminds us why he should probably stick to writing and stay away from the cameras.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


(2010) Written and directed by: Sevé Schelenz; Starring: Richard Olak, Amber Lewis and Robert Scattergood; Available on Netflix Streaming

Rating: *** ½

Full disclosure: When I was contacted by writer/director Sevé Schelenz to review his film Skew, I was apprehensive for a couple of reasons.  First, Cinematic Catharsis isn’t exactly a “brand-name” blog, so I wondered what the catch was.  Was this a legitimate film or some sort of prank?   Being a rather trusting individual, I concluded that Schelenz was on the up and up, and that this was a sincere attempt by a filmmaker to spread the word about his movie by utilizing a more “grass roots” approach.  With screener copy in hand, I soon faced another dilemma.  What if I didn’t like his movie?  Based on our email conversation, Mr. Schelenz seemed like a nice guy, and I’d hate to dash his hopes.  I realized that my wee blog’s influence on the film-going public was probably infinitesimally small, but I couldn’t help shake the notion that my potentially negative review could directly or indirectly affect his career.  I was relieved to discover that once I’d put my neurotic notions aside long enough to watch Skew, Schelenz had actually crafted a better-than-average psychological thriller.

Skew doesn’t start on a particularly promising note, looking a little too much like other found footage movies that involve one over-zealous character and his camcorder.  We’re introduced to three 20-somethings, about to embark on a car trip.  It doesn’t take a clairvoyant to anticipate that tensions will build between the characters, as they always do, and things will devolve from tentatively cordial to quarrelsome.  While none of this portion of the story appears out of place, the film gradually gains momentum by toying with expectations.  Akin to the film’s title, something in Skew appears to be a bit off, and you begin to wonder where it’s taking you.

I’ve never been a huge fan of the found footage sub-genre, which has always seemed somewhat contrived for my taste, but Schelenz does an admirable job of providing a credible explanation for the camera’s presence in the story.  We learn that Simon (Robert Scattergood) is using his camcorder as an emotional crutch, helping to fill in the blanks of an empty childhood.  He’s creating a new reality for himself with his camera, feeding his compulsion by documenting everything he sees.  His single-minded hobby takes a dark turn when he begins to see distorted faces through his lens.  When his fellow travelers fail to see what he sees, we begin to question Simon’s mental stability.  To complicate matters, there seems to be a correlation between his visions and the deaths of people he’s filmed.  But the question remains, why is it that only he can view their distorted faces through his lens?  This reminded me a bit of the premise behind the classic Twilight Zone episode “The Purple Testament” (where a soldier identifies people who were about to die by looking at their faces), but Schelenz’s story evolves into something else entirely.   

Simon’s best buddy Rich (Richard Olak) humors his friend’s odd behavior, although his patience eventually wears thin.  His girlfriend Eva (Amber Lewis) seems far less tolerant of Simon’s eccentricities and his intrusive camcorder, shooting daggers whenever she stares back through the lens.  At first, she just appears to be overtly hostile, but you begin to see that her behavior is probably justified.  There’s obviously more to their contentious relationship than meets the eye, as Simon’s camera lingers on her a little too long in several scenes.  It leaves the viewer feeling a little voyeuristic and unclean, which I’m guessing was Schelenz’s intent. 

Skew falls into some of the traps of the found footage sub-genre, with its bickering characters and conceit that all of the key scenes just happened to end up on tape.  I’m also left to question why someone didn’t punch Simon’s lights out or take his camcorder when he got too intrusive.  I also found it a little difficult to believe that he could maintain an unbroken, in focus, shot when he was engaged in an emotionally charged discussion.  While these scenes still work, taken in the proper context, it detracts from the film’s overall verisimilitude.

In the press kit, Schelenz cited The Blair Witch Project as one of the primary influences for his debut film, but I think that’s selling Skew a little short. While The Blair Witch Project was fairly straightforward, Skew toys with the subjective and the objective, asking us how much we can trust what we’ve just witnessed.  The ending seems ambiguous at first, but begins to coalesce as our brain processes what has occurred and we reassemble the pieces.   Skew is a pastiche of familiar elements, assembled into an intriguing whole that ultimately surpasses its parts.

* On a side note, Skew hasn’t been released on DVD yet, but for all of you Netflix users out there it’s available for instant viewing.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Hey, I’m a Liebster Blog Award Winner!

Whaddya know?  Someone out there likes me!  Elena at Gifts and Dreams has honored Cinematic Catharsis with the Liebster Blog Award!  So, what’s the Liebster Blog Award?  It’s an award bestowed by bloggers to give special recognition to notable blogs with fewer than 200 followers.  This unexpected accolade took me completely by surprise, and I’m virtually at a loss for words.  Thank you so much, Elena (for the nomination, not the loss for words)!  I think I’m still recovering from the shock.

So, what’s the catch?  One good turn deserves another (well, five to be exact).  There are a few rules to adhere to, and if you decide to accept the nomination: you should thank the blogger who nominated you, nominate five other favorite blogs with fewer than 200 followers… and, oh yeah, don’t forget to copy and paste the Liebster Blog icon into your post.  It was tough to narrow things down to just five personal faves, but here goes, in no particular order: