Wednesday, March 25, 2015

March Quick Picks and Pans

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (2013) Director/co-writer’s Isao Takahata’s latest effort features gorgeous animation reminiscent of watercolor paintings, accompanied by an affecting score by Studio Ghibli regular Joe Hisaishi. The story is derived from the classic Japanese folk tale “The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter,” about a childless middle-aged bamboo cutter and his wife who discover a baby girl in a bamboo stalk and raise her as one of their own. Like the plant she originated from, the baby grows at an accelerated rate, maturing into a young woman within a few years. The bamboo forest yields gold and silk, which provide the means for them to move to the city, where their adopted daughter can live as a princess. Takahata tells his story with grace and gentle humor, tempered with an underlying melancholic tone. The Tale of Princess Kaguya is life affirming, but never saccharine with its sentiment. We’re reminded that life is ephemeral, but also beautiful. I’m saddened that this might be one of the last films to come from Studio Ghibli, but they couldn’t have asked for a better epitaph than this.

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

Come and See (1985) Director Elem Klimov presents an unflinching depiction of wartime atrocities through the eyes of Florya, an adolescent boy (Aleksey Kravchenko) struggling to survive during the Nazi occupation of Belarus. We watch him visibly age throughout the film, as the weight of his experiences takes its toll on his mind and body. It’s extremely difficult to watch at times, especially when a village and its residents are burned to the ground by Nazi invaders, but it’s always engaging. Come and See is essential viewing for anyone interested in an alternative perspective of World War II, free from Hollywood gloss.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

The Visitor (1979) This Italian production, filmed in Atlanta, is a bizarre hodge-podge of mystical and science fiction elements, with a classic fight between good and evil. The introduction (which could have been concocted by L. Ron Hubbard) attempts to explain the extraterrestrial back-story, involving an eternal struggle between good and evil. Seemingly random elements are thrown in to keep the viewer disconcerted.

Lance Henriksen (in an early role), stars as Raymond Armstead, owner of a professional basketball team, and the pawn of a shadowy organization. His girlfriend has an 8-year-old daughter Katy (Paige Conner) with supernatural powers and sociopathic tendencies (think a female version of The Omen). The girl is pursued by a galactic cop (John Huston), who’s accompanied by a Christ-like figure and his bald child disciples. The impressive cast also features Glenn Ford as a police detective, and Shelley Winters as an eccentric, astrology-obsessed housekeeper. But wait, there’s more… oh, so much more. I’m not sure how this ever got made, but I’m kind of glad someone gave it the green light. The Visitor might make you question your sanity, but if you’re up to taking a dive into the deep end of weird cinema, this might just be the ticket. Don’t let the bad IMDB rating sway you. Give it a try, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2014) This documentary-style film from director Adam Robitel (who co-wrote the script with Gavin Heffernan) starts off on a promising note, with its story about a PhD student (Michelle Ang) conducting a case study on Alzheimer’s sufferer Deborah Logan. The film is notable for some fine performances, especially Jill Larson as the elderly title character, and Anne Ramsay as her middle-aged daughter Sarah. There’s a good dynamic between the two actors that really sells their relationship. In fact, the first two thirds are so compelling that it’s disappointing when the last third devolves into familiar territory with jump scares, “shaky cam” footage and doctoral students running around doing stupid things. If you forget the latter part of the film, it’s a quite effective family drama about a mother and daughter coping with the real-life horrors of a debilitating illness. It’s too bad it doesn’t quite work as the horror it was marketed as.

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

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Blog Update: Announcements and Miscellanea

2014 was a landmark year for Cinematic Catharsis. I continued to see an increase in visits (not all spam-related, I hope) to my humble little blog, stretched my horizons with new theme months (Monster March, David Lynch Month, etc…), dabbled in hosting my first blogathon, the Goldblumathon, watched my posts appear on other blogs, and even appeared on a podcast. If you’re a frequent visitor, however, you may have noticed things have slowed down a bit, lately. Several events in February and March, both bad (sick parent, death of a treasured family pet) and good (new puppy, move to a new home), have resulted in more than a few setbacks for my blog. But everything goes in waves, and I anticipate that things will pick up very soon.   

As I continue to define my blogging voice, one thing has remained constant – my commitment to an eclectic focus. I like the fact that I can’t be pinned down to one particular type of film, featuring a little bit of this, and a little bit of that: cult movies, genre favorites, along with some classics thrown in for good measure. Maintaining a balance of titles hasn’t always been easy. A quick analysis of my reviews revealed a large disparity in ratio of horror to sci-fi movies. You might notice more reviews of science fiction and fantasy films in the year ahead, but horror fans should fear not. I don’t want anyone to get the impression I’m abandoning the genre. I like horror too much, have met so many amazing horror-centric folks on Twitter, and will continue to make it a major emphasis in the months and years to come.

Here’s a preview of what I have in store for the months ahead:

·         April will be Hong Kong Month, featuring comedy, horror, kung fu, and more. I’ll be integrating the theme into my entry for the Great Villain Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and Silver Screenings.

 ·         In May, I’m attending Fangoria’s Texas Frightmare Weekend, and look forward to reporting news from the horror scene, as well as my impressions about attending my first convention in 20 years (yes, I’m old). In addition, be sure to watch for my submission for the Shorts! blogathon, hosted by Movies Silently.

·         In June, I’ll be tackling an overlooked sequel to one of the biggest blockbusters of the ‘70s for the Beach Party Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings.

·         Silent September will take a vacation this year, but should return in 2016. In its place, will be Sci-Fi September.

·         October, of course is Horror Month (what else?).

·         This November becomes Noir-vember – an attempt to patch the gaping hole in my film noir vocabulary.

·         Following the positive response to David Lynch month, December will highlight the works of a director to be named later.

So what’s going on in July and August? Well, that remains to be seen (hey, I make this stuff up as I go along). After the moderate success of the Godblumathon, I’m contemplating maybe, just maybe, hosting another blogathon this summer. I’m entertaining a few ideas, but if you’re interested in co-hosting, or have a theme to suggest, let me know in comments, Twitter, or via email.

Thanks to everyone who stops by on a regular or semi-regular basis, as well as those who recently stumbled on this blog. The positive feedback really makes me feel as if I’m doing something right. Your comments and suggestions are always welcome and encouraged. Stay tuned…

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Aelita (aka: Aelita: Queen of Mars)

(1924) Directed by: Yakov Protazanov; Written by Aleksei Fajko and Fyodor Otsep; Based on the novel Aelita by Aleksei Tolstoy; Starring: Yuliya Solntseva, Igor Ilyinsky, Nikolai Tsereteli and Valentina Kuindzhi;
Available on DVD (from Flicker Alley) and Hulu Streaming

Rating: ** ½

“…both in Exter’s costumes and Rabinovich’s sets, industrial materials served a definite objective: they defined form in the absence of color…” – John Bowlt (from the essay “Down to Earth: Aelita Relocated,” by Ian Christie, excerpted from Inside the Film Factory, edited by Richard Taylor and Ian Christie)

Preparing for next week’s move may have left me exhausted, but my spirit remains untarnished, as I complete my submission, just under the wire, for the Russia in Classic Film Blogathon. First of all, I’d like to express my thanks to the one and only Fritzi from Movies Silently for hosting another outstanding celebration of film, and sponsored by the good folks at Flicker Alley. I chose this opportunity to expand my cinematic horizons and channel my Eastern European roots in one fell swoop, with the Soviet oddity, Aelita.

I’m still not sure what to think of Aelita after watching it a second time. It’s almost as if Yakov Protazanov wanted to make two separate films. On the one hand, it’s a drama about an engineer and his wife struggling to make ends meet amidst the stark backdrop of post-revolutionary Russia. On the other hand, it’s a fanciful space opera set in a stylized Martian landscape. The lavish production took a year to complete, and marked director Protazanov’s return to the U.S.S.R. Most of Aleksei Tolstoy’s novel was eschewed in favor of a more topical (reflecting life in the freshly minted U.S.S.R), and less fantastical approach. While most of the novel took place on Mars, the filmmakers chose to keep things back on Earth (Inside the Film Factory). The fantasy elements left in still provide an ample amount of eye candy for the unsuspecting viewer.

In the opening scene, a cryptic radio message, thought to have originated from Mars, is heard around the globe. Engineer Los and rocket scientist Spiridinov (both played by Nikolai Tsereteli) set to work building a means of reaching the red planet. Los is so consumed by his dream of voyaging to another world that he fails to notice his long-suffering wife Natasha (Valentina Kuindzhi) is being courted by a shifty profiteer, Viktor Ehrlich (Pavel Pol). He subsequently flies into a homicidal rage when he suspects her of infidelity.  Thrown into the mix is a subplot about a bumbling would-be detective, played by Igor Ilyinsky.

As confusing and thematically inconsistent as Aelita’s Earth scenes are, it’s hard to resist the Mars sequences, and the fanciful depiction of an alien civilization. The imaginative, expansive Russian modernist sets are defined by monochromatic elements, sharp angles and asymmetrical shapes. Alexandra Exter’s (who also worked on the set design) similarly bizarre costume designs compliment the sets perfectly.  Although Exter cited The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari as one of her influences, Aelita likely inspired many more films (e.g., the Flash Gordon serials, Metropolis, and Things to Come) with its impressive, albeit impractical look.

Defying an edict by the Martian ruler Tuskub (Konstantin Eggert), queen Aelita (Yuliya Solntseva) covertly uses a telescope to observe Earth and its inhabitants. She’s smitten by one particular human, Los, and dreams of one day seeing him in the flesh. Unfortunately, their eventual meeting doesn’t quite work out the way she hoped, as Los and his Earth companions help stage a rebellion (accompanied by some heavy handed imagery of a sword being beaten into a sickle) against Tuskub’s oppressive regime.

Although Aelita was a box office success, it was commonly regarded as an artistic failure for Protazanov, and criticized in its home country as “too western” with its grand scope (The Cinema of Russia and the Former Soviet Union, edited by Birgit Beumers). While this reputation seems a wee bit harsh, it’s tough to overlook some of the film’s deficits (SPOILER ALERT). Los is a questionable choice for a protagonist, on account of his attempted murder of Natasha and dream killing of Aelita. The fact that the movie falls back on the safety net of the “it was all a dream” (or more accurately, “it was all a daydream”) convention does little to mitigate the preceding scenes that established Los as a homicidal nutjob. For all the dreamers out there, Aelita ends on a depressing note, when Los throws the rocket plans into the fireplace, so he can devote his time to more Earthly pursuits (Stop daydreaming, comrade, and get back to work!).  And don’t get me started about the mystery message, which turns out to have more mundane origins. Despite Aelita’s numerous trespasses, it’s worth a look for Exter’s wild designs and Yuliya Solntseva’s captivating performance as the title character. It’s also worth pointing out that this film was intended as popular entertainment, not fodder for stuffy film historians or silent film completists. Aelita provides a window into another time, a stylized snapshot of the political milieu of the period.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Beastmaster

(1982) Directed by Don Coscarelli; Written by Don Coscarelli and Paul Pepperman; Starring: Marc Singer, Tanya Roberts, Rip Torn and John Amos; Available on DVD

Rating: *** ½

“So there’s one sort of conundrum here… which is that his father is the king, but his brother is the heir, which makes Tanya’s character his cousin… We never did address that correctly.” – Don Coscarelli

Note: This is an expanded, re-rated (and dare I say, improved) version of a capsule review that originally appeared in December 2010.

At first glance, The Beastmaster doesn’t seem too far removed from the slew of other sword and sorcery movies that dominated the early ‘80s cinematic landscape, but director/co-writer Don Coscarelli had an ace up his sleeve. His film incorporated an amusing twist with a protagonist who could communicate with animals and see through their eyes. This gimmicky conceit was enough to spawn a mini franchise, including two direct-to-video sequels (without Coscarelli’s involvement) and a TV series.

Budgeted at $4.7 million,* The Beastmaster was Coscarelli’s most expensive production to date. While this was a drop in the bucket compared to many of the large-scale productions of the time, the increased funds gave him the latitude to create a film that was more epic in scope than his previous offerings. Coscarelli considered several foreign locations for the shoot, but eventually chose Simi Valley and other Southern California locales for many of the scenes.

* $8 million according to IMDB, but I tend to believe the smaller figure, reported by Coscarelli and co-producer Pepperman.

Considering the modest budget, The Beastmaster does a respectable job of creating the illusion the filmmakers had more money to work with. The film boasts some impressive set pieces, including a full-scale pyramid modeled after ancient ruins in Guatemala. Coscarelli and his crew also took care to ensure the costumes* and villages reflected the look of a bygone era. Cinematographer John Alcott, who worked with Stanley Kubrick on several productions, utilized his experience shooting in ambient light to provide atmosphere to the interior shots. And of course, with a title like The Beastmaster, the film features a menagerie of animals, including a golden eagle (on loan from the San Diego Wild Animal Park), a “black” tiger,** and a pair of ferrets. Although Coscarelli lamented the lack of creative control (he wasn’t able to supervise the editing process, or the addition of some sketchy effects that were added in post-production), he seemed pleased with the overall film.

* According to Coscarelli and Pepperman’s DVD commentary, the film’s production designer Conrad Angone visited sex shops for S&M books, depicting leather bondage gear. The designs would form the basis for the death guards’ (ahem), uniforms.

** Coscarelli wanted to use panthers, but the animal trainer chose tigers for their trainability. The tigers were painted black, although the dye tended to disappear throughout the shoot, and frequently needed to be re-touched.

If you blended Dr. Dolittle with Conan the Barbarian, you might get something like Dar the eponymous Beastmaster, played with earnest conviction by Marc Singer. He’s likeable as the muscle-bound sword fighter endowed with the gift of gab for his furry and feathered friends. Dar squawks with the best of them as he calls out to his eagle for assistance. He’s equally adept at contending with a group of scary humanoid/bird creatures who admire his prowess with his avian friend.

In addition to Singer’s antics, The Beastmaster features some quirky supporting performances. Rip Torn, sporting a sizeable proboscis, is obviously having a great time as the sneering, despotic ruler Maax. Drunk with power, he regards the peons of his dominion as an inexhaustible supply for his sacrificial altar. Former Charlie’s Angels star Tanya Roberts plays slave girl Kiri, providing substantive evidence that feathered hair existed during the Bronze Age. She serves as Dar’s nominal love interest, despite the fact they’re probably related (the less said, the better). Kiri proves she’s more than just a passive damsel in distress, however, by getting in a few scrapes with the bad guys. Dar and Kiri are accompanied by the ascetic warrior Seth (John Amos), who’s a formidable ally and a daunting foe for anyone who dares to cross him.

I was the perfect target age when this this family-friendly* adventure debuted in the theaters. Years later, it’s still a blast to channel my inner middle-schooler, and shut down my brain for a while. Beastmaster falls somewhere in the sweet spot between its contemporaries, the admittedly superior Conan the Barbarian and the inferior The Sword and the Sorcerer. It might not be the best sword and sorcery movie to come out of that era, but it’s a worthwhile entry. Silly? Yes. Fun? Definitely.

* Minus the multiple deaths and occasional bare breasts, but hey, who’s counting?