Tuesday, February 28, 2017

February Quick Picks and Pans

Under the Shadow (2016) Set in 1980s Tehran during the Iraq-Iran conflict, writer/director Babak Anvari’s multifaceted debut feature film deftly balances text and subtext. After Shideh’s (Narges Rashidi) husband is sent to the front, she’s left alone in a tenement building with her daughter and a handful of residents, under the constant threat of air attacks. Her worst fears are realized when an Iraqi missile crashes into her roof. Although it fails to explode, the projectile heralds the arrival of another form of wrath, a malevolent djinn.

While all of the performances are superb, Rashidi really shines as the conflicted Shideh, who grapples with her inner demons as she confronts a literal demon. Under the Shadow goes far beyond the surface, eschewing simple jump scares as it examines the main character’s existential fear of not being in control of her life. It also works by exploiting the fears that any parent or caregiver can relate to, as we attempt to keep our children/loved ones safe in an increasingly uncertain world. I’m not sure how this film slipped through the cracks, but now that it’s available on Netflix, there’s little reason to miss it.

* Thanks to Amber (Follow her on @tangoineden) for the stellar suggestion.

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

April and the Extraordinary World (2015) This French animated film, based on Jacques Tardi’s work, takes its inspiration from the stories of Jules Verne and Hayao Miyazaki’s animation style. The steampunk tale is set in an alternate 1941, where a long line of Napoleons preside over the country, and steam power is the basis for most technology. April is a young scientist, who against the will of the oppressive government, carries on her family legacy, to create an elixir of life. Co-directors Christian Desmares and Franck Ekinci take a whimsical approach to the subject matter, but unlike their American counterparts, they don’t feel the need to fill the screen with endless throwaway gags or dizzying action sequences every few minutes. There’s more imagination on display than a dozen lesser so-called “family” films (I love the steam-powered skyway from Paris to Berlin), and a great choice for kids or perennial kids (like me).

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

Train Man (Densha Otoko) (2005) Shôsuke Murakami’s charming romantic comedy (based on a novel by Hitori Nakano) presents nothing new under the sun, but what it does, it does very well. After a chance meeting with a cute girl (Miki Nakatani) on a commuter train, a socially inept 22-year-old otaku gets advice from his online pals (all of whom are equally clueless) about how to win her over. Takayuki Yamada is very believable and oddly appealing as Densha Otoko, who attempts to overcome his awkward nature in spite of himself. We can’t help but root for our protagonist, who stumbles along the way, but is never down for the count. Train Man inspires us to foster our real life relationships, but reminds us to never underestimate the power of online interactions.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Human Lanterns (1982) Leave it to the Shaw Brothers to present a kung fu film with an Ed Gein-inspired twist. Chao Chun-Fang, a lantern craftsman (Lieh Lo), plots revenge against all who have oppressed him, pitting two rival noblemen against each other. Meanwhile, he perfects a secret method for creating his decorative lanterns, fashioning them from human skin. As with many Shaw Brothers movies, the set and costume designs are top notch. The makeup effects aren’t quite as convincing, but they’re still unnerving to watch as Chun-Fang peels the skin from his victims. It’s a crazy action/horror hybrid that works in spite of itself. If you’re tired of the same old thing, this movie might just scratch that itch.

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

Squirm (1976) As one of the many nature’s wrath flicks to spring from the 1970s, writer/director Jeff Liebererman’s movie distinguishes itself with some decent character development and a few low rent scares. Set in rural Georgia, mayhem ensues when a downed powerline charges the ground with thousands of volts of electricity, unleashing bloodthirsty worms that ooze out of the mud. A city boy (Don Scardino) visits his country girlfriend (Patricia Pearcy), and is forced to contend with the wriggly menace himself, along with a hateful local sheriff (Peter MacLean). Modern horror filmmakers could learn something from Squirm’s simple approach and slow buildup.

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

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Good Day Sunshine

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

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

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

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

My responses to Cinephile Crocodile’s questions:

1. What makes you angriest about modern cinema?

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

2. What makes you happiest about modern cinema?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

6. What is your favorite movie quote?

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

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

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

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

8. Sweet, salt or mixed popcorn?

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

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

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

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

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

11. Do you feel lucky Punk?

Well, actually, yeah. I kind of do.

Here are my nominees for the Sunshine Blogger Award:

Michaël Parent, Le Mot du Cinephiliaque: http://cinephiliaque.blogspot.com/

JT Williams, Blogferatu: https://blogferatu.com/

Stabford Deathrage, Stabford Deathrage Shoots His Mouth Off: http://stabforddeathrage.blogspot.com/

Joey, The Last Drive In: https://thelastdrivein.com/

Silver Screenings: https://silverscreenings.org/

Kristina, Speakeasy: https://hqofk.wordpress.com/

Lyz, And You Call Yourself a Scientist: https://andyoucallyourselfascientist.com/

Dick, The Oak Drive-In: http://theoakdrivein.blogspot.com/

Kerry, Prowler Needs a Jump: https://twitter.com/echidnabot          

Bill Meeker, Frisco Kid at the Movies: http://friscokidtx.com/

And my questions for you, dear bloggers:

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

Friday, February 3, 2017

Pin: A Plastic Nightmare

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

Rating: ****

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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