Big Hero 6 (2014)

Big Hero 6 (2014) movie poster

directors Don Hall, Chris Williams
viewed: 11/23/2014 at the Presidio Theater, SF, CA

Big Hero 6 is Disney’s latest very good digitally animated feature.  The run of success that the studio has been on since Tangled (2010) isn’t necessarily unprecedented, but given where the studio sat in relation to other animation studios, most namely Pixar, as the turn to digital animation became so dominant, it’s still very impressive and worth noting.

Disney and Pixar are of course at this time virtually the same animal.  Pixar’s John Lasseter sat in as producer on this Disney film, Disney having absorbed Pixar a few years back has caused me to wonder about the branding and prioritization at the studios in recent years.  Pixar has been stuck in a sequel-churn while Disney has had successes with digital princess films like Tangled and Frozen (2013) as well as more (dare I say it?) boy-oriented fare like Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and now Big Hero 6.  It’s kind of like you can see where the talent and dollars have been spent over the last few years…and it’s paid off.

It really makes me wonder about Pixar’s future.  They do have an original film due out next summer, Inside Out (2015), which at least “looks like” an original Pixar film, not just another knock-off sequel (of which I’ve also read they have a few due out (Finding Dory (2016), Toy Story 4 (2017), The Incredibles 2 (TBA), Cars 3 (TBA)).

Big Hero 6 is the best film of its kind since Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004).  It’s a more action-adventure style of animated feature.  Like The Incredibles, it’s also a superhero film, as well.  Though in this case, it’s adapted from a Marvel comic, an established set of characters and storylines (perhaps thusfar the ultimate of the massive Disney enterprise of its multitude of pop cultural holdings, fusing together into commercial products for us and our families).

It’s slick and entertaining.  Clara totally loved it.  Felix thought it was pretty good.  Me, at first I was really, really enjoying it, but by the end the magic had worn a little thin and clichéd.

The animation, particularly the character animation of Baymax, the big balloon-like robot, is terrific.  It’s all set in San Fransokyo (a San Francisco/Tokyo mash-up world of the story), which is also wonderfully rendered (I was actually struck how cool it is to watch a movie with a set so beautifully imagined that is essentially the city in which we are watching the film.  SF-local bias.)

It’s the story of robot-maker nerds and their passion for science and technological advancement.  Hiro (the movie’s “hero”) is the younger brother to Tadashi, who inspired his younger sibling to go to college, meet his peers, turn his passion for invention into a professional career with positive goals.  Only Tadashi gets killed early on (proof that this isn’t exactly the soft-and-fuzzy little kid-friendly Disney-type story but one with vaguely more adult themes and villains.  Tadashi has left Baymax, his non-threatening medical professional balloon ‘bot behind.  Eventually Jiro groups the college science nerds and Baymax into a superhero team to fight a Kabuki-masked villain.

The first part of the film is its best, especially the scenes with Baymax in various states of inflation, working his way around the 3D environment.  It’s the scenes with Baymax that have the real flair of beautifully-rendered digital animation that we’ve come to expect from Pixar.

In the end, the adventure and thrills are still a lot of fun.  At least there are no musical numbers that tweens will be singing for the next millennia to come til we all go insane and stab our ears out.

Rear Window (1954)


Rear Window (1954) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 11/22/2014

Is Rear Window Alfred Hitchcock’s best film?  I mean that both provocatively and honestly.

I first saw it in the 1980’s when several of Hitchcock’s films became available for the first time on home media: Rear WindowVertigo (1958), Rope (1948), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  I’d seen both Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), The Birds probably most early and most often, but the minor glut of films on release opened the door for me on one of the most famous and remarkable of film directors.

I won’t belabor analysis here.  It’s been done often and better than I could offer.  But I will say that the construction and control of the camera, of the viewer, of the whole cinematic operation (something I think is so masterfully Hitchcockian) is definitely as refined and sophisticated in this film as any film Hitchcock ever made.  The complex panopticon of a set, the vicarious obsession of the voyeur, the meticulous thrill, black comedy and even the outfits (Edith Head, of course!)

I shared the film with Felix and Clara.  We’ve watched a few Hitchcocks together.  We’ve even taken to watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well.  Oddly enough, or not, this was very likely their favorite to date.  And I have to agree at the moment.  Of all the films we’ve seen together, I too enjoyed this one as much as any other Hitchcock.

It’s funny that Jimmy Stewart plays such a jerk.  He’s downright nearly evil in Vertigo, but here he’s a guy who can’t even appreciate the glorious beauty and boundless good nature of Grace Kelly, who is gorgeous and charming in Rear Window.  That said, Thelma Ritter pretty much steals all the scenes in which she appears.  Do they make great character actors like her anymore?  Do they write roles for great character actors like her Stella here?

I said I won’t belabor the point so I’ll stop.  Rear Window is Hitchcock at his best.

Who Killed Walter Benjamin… (2005)

Who Killed Walter Benjamin (2005) movie poster

director David Mauas
viewed: 11/22/2014

In September of 1940, in the coastal village of Portbou, bordertown of France and Spain, the great writer/thinker/philosopher/cultural critic Walter Benjamin died.  He had been escaping from Paris, which had just been invaded by the Nazis, through Spain to Portugal to America.  A German Jew, radical thinker affiliated with the Left, Benjamin knew that the Nazis were after him.

The Spanish documentary Who Killed Walter Benjamin… investigates the case of his death, some 65 years later, visiting the pretty little village, whose people still bear the scars of WWII and the political divides that came into bearing at the time and would linger for years under the Franco regime.  It’s not clear what exactly director David Mausas hoped to find among the memories and erasures, but given his understanding of Benjamin and his thinking, perhaps the queries and their resonant echoes play out enough.

The facts are indeed befuddled.  It’s written into history that Benjamin committed suicide with morphine capsules upon reaching Portbou and finding his papers insufficient to carry on his journey to the US.  But much is obfuscated.  Much is doubtful.  And much else can easily be suggested or projected.  Mysteries abound.

What happened to his heavy briefcase that potentially contained his final and important manuscript?  If he committed suicide, why was he allowed to be buried in hallowed Catholic soil?  Was the Gestapo afoot?  Was he murdered?

The search for answers isn’t necessarily fruitful but the history, even with the lack of clarity of certainty utterly evident, is interesting.  The documentary’s interrogations are broad-based, from locals who recall many of the people of the time to friends of Benjamin’s or scholars.  Mausas sounds out the questions which shed light in many directions if not factual truths or knowable alterations to the “formal” history of the case.

Boss Nigger (1974)

Boss Nigger (1974) movie poster

director Jack Arnold
viewed: 11/21/2014

I don’t know if Jack Arnold and Fred Williamson’s Boss Nigger is the most confrontational of blacksploitation films, but it certainly has the most confrontational title.  Still so much so, the film’s DVD release has been simply retitled Boss.  And while Boss would still be an appropriate title for the film, given the story, it somewhat denudes it of that brash black-empowerment cachet that pushes the film’s edginess to the far more dramatic.

Star Williamson, who had already appeared in a number of blacksploitation movies including Black Caesar (1972) and Hell Up in Harlem (1973), actually wrote the script of this revisionist Western.  And in one of the more unusual pairings in Hollywood, legendary 1950’s science fiction director Jack Arnold is the man in the directorial seat.

Williamson plays “Boss”, the black-leather clad bounty hunter, who with his amiable sidekick Amos (D’Urville Martin), hunt down wanted white men and bring them to justice, dead or alive.  When they find themselves in the small town of San Miguel with a notice allowing them to become the town’s sheriff and deputy, they lay down their own set of “Black Laws,” dictating respectful behavior from all citizens.

It’s easy to see that the character of Boss was a major influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), from the notion of a black bounty hunter in the Old West down to Django’s stetson.

Though the film has a few radical black power statements, dramatically delivered by Williamson and Martin, it’s not a deeply radical affair at heart.  Arnold keeps the violence to a bloodless, almost television-style minimum (which is an interesting tack in post-Spaghetti Western 1970’s action fare), and maybe that is to the film’s ultimate detriment as a political statement.

It’s still quite the radical thing in and of itself, made during the height of the Black Power movement, the simple placement of a black hero in the (arguably) “whitest” of popular American film genres, force-feeding anti-racist behavior to the frontier town’s folk, and headed by the tough and manly “Boss Nigger” himself, tips the hand of deep-seated white fears and wrestles self-empowerment into the hands of the movie’s heroes.

Some have suggested that Williamson’s portrayal is at play with parody of blacksploitation roles he himself had already portrayed in a genre/style that even by 1975, only four years after Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, was already potentially played into hyper stereotype itself.  On this point, I cannot say.  I’m still pretty junior to the whole blaxploitation period and oeuvre.

Zombies of Mora Tau (1957)

Zombies of Mora Tau (1957) movie poster

director Edward L. Cahn
viewed: 11/20/2014

From director Edward L. Cahn (Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) & It! The Terror from Beyond Space (1958)) and producer Sam Katzman (of many, many movies and the “Icons of Horror” DVD Collection), come “Zombies of the Ocean Deeps!”, “A Tide of Terror Floods the Screen!”.

I kind of want to channel SCTV’s Count Floyd here for a moment, “Ooh! Scary!”

Zombies of Mora Tau is a zombie flick, shot in California, but set in the wilds of  coastal Africa, where some decades back a ship went down with some cursed diamonds.  And while a new team of divers seek to find the sunken booty, the crew of the ship lurks nearby to bedevil anyone who tries to capture the lost treasure.  And an old lady tells of the many groups who have come over the years to try to capture the diamonds only to meet miserable deaths.

It’s not rock-bottom entertainment, but it’s maybe only a few flights up from Ed Wood, Jr.  And of those other Edward L. Cahn or Sam Katzman pictures, it’s maybe the least fun and interesting.

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014)

A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) movie poster

director Seth MacFarlane
viewed: 11/19/2014

Who am I to criticize Seth MacFarlane?

MacFarlane writes, produces, directs, and stars in the comedy Western A Million Ways to Die in the West.

That’s nothing new.  He’s been the voice star of his television show Family Guy and American Dad (the former of the two for nearly two decades).  A Million Ways to Die is not his first rodeo, so to speak, it’s his second live-action feature film, following Ted (2012), which he also voiced the titular character of the film.

What is new is Seth MacFarlane appearing onscreen in the flesh.  In this film, he himself is the star, the protagonist, the main character..  He’s right there in the center of the movie poster between Charlize Theron and Liam Neeson, two much more established “movie stars”.

And therein may well lie the rub.

MacFarlane himself as a screen presence is kind of odd.  He’s a nice enough looking guy.  He can sing.  He’s funny.  But as his 2012 Oscar hosting showed, there is something about him “in human form” that plays badly.  Whether it’s laughability or affability or whatever, I don’t know.  But starring in the film, he plays a character who is not so much a character as just the post-modern comic in the Old West, an embedded anachronism.  I couldn’t help but think that maybe in the hands of another filmmaker, MacFarlane could have played out a better part, but in his own hands, he is just oddly grating though kind of bland.

Oddly enough, MacFarlane appreciates the Western as a genre.  But outside of lovely shots of the Southwestern vistas, A Million Ways to Die in the West is the thinnest of storylines, the shallowest of cleverness, and almost entirely bereft of laughs.  It’s actually quite surprisingly unfunny.  And long.  And gross and crass.

Why MacFarlane’s screen presence is so unsatisfying… I don’t know.  What I do know is that  A Million Ways to Die in the West is a pretty awful movie, tedious, overlong, and tiresome.

Long Weekend (1978)

it Long Weekend (1978) movie poster

director Colin Eggleston
viewed: 11/17/2014

Reading about this Australian eco-horror film, I had flashes of Wake in Fright (1971) in mind. Long Weekend is no Wake in Fright, but it doesn’t lack for interest.

A young, very troubled married couple heads out to the Australian seaside for a camping weekend from hell.  Stocked up on rifles, spear guns, and insecticide, they take to the country like a disease.  Of course, their disease is deep-seated.  Their marriage is in the toilet, as a result of misguided wife-swapping and a recent abortion.  They are the poison in the landscape, killing ants, kangaroos, and even a dugong in their unhappy revelry.

But nature is going to get its revenge.

Let’s face it. Australia is home to some of the most dangerous creatures on the planet, be they spiders, snakes, jellyfish, salt water crocs, or great white sharks.  In Australia, nature can well be deadly.

But the nature that seeks its revenge in Long Weekend is kind of on the odd side.  That dugong they killed…it’s kind of a zombie, following them up from the beach while rotting.  It’s the pointing finger of fate, accusing them of their crimes.  They also get attacked by an eagle, which seems to want revenge for their having taken its egg.  Tasmanian devils crawl the landscape.  Koalas hang in the trees.  The husband gets bitten by an enraged opossum.  These aren’t your deadliest critters on the continent.

If you’re so crass as to seek out an isolated beach that is just a mile or two up the road from an abattoir, well, you’re doubtlessly going to get what’s coming to you.

The film has a vague eeriness to it and a very misanthropic heart.  But some of the elements verge on the nearly comedic.  Not sure how intentional/unintentional the humor is.

Still, a pretty interesting flick.

The Giant Claw (1955)

The Giant Claw (1957) movie poster

director Fred F. Sears
viewed: 11/16/2014

The b-side of the Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) Sam Katzman “Icons of Horror Collection,” The Giant Claw is something completely different.

Notorious as featuring the worst monster design ever (and certainly silly enough to be in the running for such a title), The Giant Claw is sort of an American Rodan (1956), if you will.  It’s a giant flying monster anyways, right from that self-same era.  While the Japanese kaiju horror films had their strengths and weaknesses, the monster from The Giant Claw, a big buzzard with teeth and a mohawk of sorts, is a bird of another feather.  (see below)

giant claw monster

See? Brilliant!

The funny thing about The Giant Claw is that it is a pretty silly B-movie.  The “science” that describes from whence the monster came and how it is invulnerable and ultimately how the world comes to destroy it is all right out of high camp 1950’s.

But I loved it.  This is totally one of those amazingly endearing works of junk art that transcend all everything.

And the monster: okay, it’s funny-looking.  But you know, for a puppet, it has a range of movement and expression (It breathes!)  And once it makes its initial appearance not simply as a big flashing blur, it gets a lot of screentime.  I really can’t tell you how much I enjoyed this.

It’s from director Fred F. Sears, who made The Werewolf (1956) and Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) as well for producer Sam Katzman.  Not to mention many, many others.

All, I want to say is that here is your Thanksgiving monster movie turkey dinner.

The Giant Claw (1957) The End

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955)

Creature with the Atom Brain (1955) movie poster

director Edward L. Cahn
viewed: 11/16/2014

From the pen of The Wolfman (1941) scribe, Curt Siodmak, another science fiction flick with one of those iconic 1950’s-era titles, Creature with the Atom Brain!

The funny thing is that there isn’t a singular “Creature” but a whole bunch of “Creatures.”  And that “Atom Brain” which sounds like maybe the creature(s) have even smaller thinking organs than your average bird, it’s an Atomic Energy Modified brain, controlled by mad scientists and a criminal seeking revenge on his former prosecutors.  So, the creatures are really kind of mind-control zombies.

This particular DVD on which I watched Creature with the Atom Brain was packaged as part of the “Icons of Horror Collection” which features other Katzman productions like The Werewolf (1956), Zombies of Mora Tau (1957), and as the double feature on this disc, The Giant Claw (1957).  Katzman was a prolific director if potentially dubious as an “Icon of Horror”.

Overall, Creature is a pretty solid B-movie, the kind of thing that you can watch and really picture yourself back in a movie theater in the 1950’s on a Saturday afternoon with all the trimmings.  And if you do imagine that, then your fantasy double feature instead includes It Came from Beneath the Sea (1955), another Katzman production, though notable for the classic Ray Harryhausen effects of the giant octopus attacking the Golden Gate Bridge.

The Hole (2009)

The Hole (2009) movie poster

director Joe Dante
viewed: 11/16/2014

Joe Dante, the man behind Piranha (1978), The Howling (1981), Gremlins (1984) and Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990).

I’ve always appreciated Joe Dante, but I think, especially having seen him pop up in a multitude of documentaries on Exploitation cinema, Roger Corman, Edgar G. Ulmer, so many things, I’ve come to like him all the more in recent times, appreciate him even more.

Now Dante’s career is probably defined by Gremlins more than any other movie.  It’s his most successful film and led to other PG or PG-13 rated kids science fiction/thriller fare like Explorers (1985), Innerspace (1987), and Small Soldiers (1998).  But it’s been a long while since a Joe Dante film commanded much attention.  So when his film The Hole came and went, I noted the concept (kids find a hole in their basement that seems to lead to hell) and noted the poor reviews and obscurity and added it to my Netflix queue as a possible movie with the kids.

I think I may have overdone my emphasis on scary movies this year because Felix has gone from actively not liking scary movies to wanting to see all the scariest movies.  So when the kids asked to watch something “scary”, I figured we’d give The Hole a shot.

The story is about a teenage boy and his younger brother who move with their mom to some suburban town from the city, right next door to a hot teen sweetheart and then discover the titular hole in their basement.  It’s a bolted trap door, leading endlessly nowhere, but once you’ve looked in it knows your worst nightmares and starts to creep you out.

I’m reminded of other teen movie fare from The Goonies (1985) to Zathura (2005) to any number of things.  It’s hard maybe to make a good movie in this age range because it comes down to not just having a good story in the hands of a capable director, but having a good cast.  And maybe the levels of difficulty wind up making this just more challenging than your average film.  I don’t know.

The thing is that The Hole is pretty decent in most parts.  It’s actually quite creepy between the evil harlequin doll and the girl with one shoe who bleeds from one eye.  Those images could make for a pretty scary film.  But this movie is about conquering your fears and when the final fear, the abusive father contorted into a huge beast plays out on a Beetlejuice (1987)-style set, it’s squandered whatever genuine value its acquired and peters out without profundity.

The kids were into if for a while, but, like me, lost interest as the film played out.

Dante, though, is interesting and a few of his other films are available on demand at the moment too, so maybe we’ll revisit a few more before too long.