Splinters (2011)

Splinters (2011) movie poster

director Adam Pesce
viewed: 08/26/2014

The world’s exotica isn’t what it was in the 20th century.  Though the Earth isn’t physically any smaller, the popularity of air travel and far away destinations are much more trafficked by more and more people.  And with modern media, especially the internet, the places that are truly far away or tucked away or isolated are fewer and fewer than ever.

Papua New Guinea though is certainly one of the last exotic places.  Though part of a huge island just north of Australia, it remained notorious for isolated cultural practice of cannibalism into the mid-20th century.  But that is more the outsider’s understanding of such a place.  It’s a tropical land in which some of the people in isolated villages live lives not terribly far from those of people of their region from centuries past, milling the interior of palm trees for one of their primary foodstuffs or fishing or chewing the betel nuts of those trees.

What is unusual is the sudden import of sport surfing, which broke there only a generation before.  The film Splinters explores the culture and contest in the village of Vanimo, where rival surf clubs vie to send a champion to Australia to surf competitively and put Papua New Guinea on the international surfing map.

The title refers to the slang term for the surfboards that the locals cut from the palm trees, but it may also refer to the sniping, bickering, and typical social drama that infects the six months leading to the tournament and ultimately leads to one of the contestants in jail.

The film follows not only the male surfers but the female surfers and exposes some inherent cruelties in the PNG patriarchy.  Not only are women meant to be subservient to men but they can be legally beaten by their husbands who buy them from their families.  The glimpse into this village’s life building to the competition exposes more about the culture of the community than mere surfing.

The final images of the winners landing in a modern airport and seeing shops and things that they had only read about, never seen in real life, really underscores the distance that this village life has from the rest of the contemporary world. PNG is an exotic place and the people are outside of much of modern life.  It’s a pretty fascinating glimpse into this world.

House at the End of the Street (2012)

House at the End of the Street (2012) movie poster

director Mark Tonderai
viewed: 08/24/2014

Jennifer Lawrence.  I like her.  Media loves her.

It seems like she’s been around forever almost since I first saw her in Winter’s Bone (2010).  She’s a perennial at the Oscar’s already.  She’s all of 24.

Up and coming actors often find themselves in less than stellar films as they are given the opportunity to headline a film.  Lots make duds.  It goes with the territory.

But Lawrence has hit the route to Hollywood stardom, commercial and critical success so squarely.  Could she really have a dud film in her resume?  Or conversely, can she elevate a piece of junk to a higher plane?

House at the End of the Street is not dire trash.  It’s low-rate mediocrity of a thriller about a mom (Elizabeth Shue) and a daughter (Lawrence) moving to the isolated rural-ish ‘burbs to find that the house at the end of their street was the site of a double murder of a mom and dad by a psychotic daughter (thus pushing down the real estate market around them).  And the lone survivor of that family incident, a brother, lives there.  The girl was never found.

Lawrence is good.  The best thing in the film.  Still, she just plays a teen with a good moral compass.  Nothing too interesting here.

By the end, you know “the twist” is coming.  You’re just trying to guess at it.  Right or wrong, it’s not too satisfying.

The Possession (2012)

The Possession (2012) movie poster

director Ole Bornedal
viewed: 08/23/2014

This movie had sounded interesting to me.  Produced by Sam Raimi, it’s the story of a family that happens upon a Dybbuk box, an old wooden item inscribed with Hebrew script, a curiosity that their young daughter takes home and takes a liking to.  Only it contains a demon.

I had read the bit on the film in Entertainment Weekly back in 2012 when it came out and it sounded interesting.  Based loosely on a real story.  We all know what shite that can mean.

But a good story idea is a good story idea and this one sounded creepy along the lines of A Haunting in Connecticut (2009) which also was based on events that certain real people claimed to be utterly true.  There is a kernel here, an idea, which has inherent eeriness.  It has potential, and potential readings.  Is it a commonality that families dealing with such phenomena seem to be going through other emotional stressors?  How psychological readings of the stories could be equally disturbing if not supernatural?

Unfortunately, like A Haunting in Connecticut, the idea plays out much less interestingly than the source material.  It becomes an exorcism movie, albeit with a Jewish twist.  But nothing beyond that.

Frankly, re-reading the story from EW. I can see why I’d been intrigued.  I had read that the film squandered its potential source material and well, there you go.  It had.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) movie poster

director James Gunn
viewed: 08/23/2014 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

You’ve got to hand it to the executives at Marvel Studios.  They have built a massive product strategy and marketing strategy around their assets, churned out a number of successful films interconnecting into what is now referred to as the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” and sold everything to Disney with greater and greater plans to make more and more product and infiltrate more and more of American popular culture.  It’s insane.

I’ve said it before, as they built up to the release of The Avengers in 2012, that this is an unprecedented plan for connecting movies (but also television, video games, comic books, etc., etc., etc.) with an ever-building franchise-ization of everything.  And so far, they are really looking good.

Frankly, this summer started to tell a different tale.  The Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) movie and the X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) movies were not spectacular.  Nor was The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014).  Of course, the latter two of those fall outside of the “Marvel Cinematic Universe,” and the Spider-Man movie is actually produced outside of their auspices.  Still, a glut is a glut.  And any franchise is only as good as its last film.  And the summer of 2014 was so dire in the movie department, nothing was looking too shiny.

Marvel’s latest product, Guardians of the Galaxy, won’t reinvent the genre or even necessarily please the entire populace of fandom, but it’s by far the most enjoyable of the superhero movies to come out this year and probably one of the more entertaining summer films for 2014 (against a pretty weak field).  But I don’t mean to cast jaded praise.  I took the kids and they also enjoyed it.  So fun was had by all.

Adapted from a more obscure and oddball group than Marvel’s front line The Avengers, it’s the story of a rag-tag band of misfit mercenaries who team up to fight a bunch of evil alien guys, the Kree.  The film is directed by James Gunn, who made a splash with his creepy-crawler horror film, Slither (2006) and later superhero comedy Super (2010), and Gunn hits his marks for the most part.

Actually, of anything, I thought that the character design and make-up effects were largely stunning.  You’ve got green-skinned Zoe Saladana as Gamora, blue and red (tattooed?) David Bautista as Drax, numerous other multi-colored peeps running all about plus totally digital characters like Groot (Vin Diesel) and Rocket (Bradley Cooper).  Chris Pratt is the lone regular guy with little make-up or digital enhancement.  Really, the make-up and character designs are as eye-popping as anything I’ve seen.

I would argue that the film is just entertaining and good as it needs to be to make it one of the best of summer 2014.  Really, I’ve got no complaints.  It’s fun.  Enjoyable.

Great, on the other hand?  No.  Good.   Solid good.  That’s as high as this year’s bar rises so it seems.

It paves the way for the future, as Marvel Studios does so well.  A sequel is promised in 2017, while tie-ins, and other films from the “Marvel Cinematic Universe” continued to roll along with Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and Ant-Man (2015).  My guess is that their formula for success will continue to bring results, in the billions.

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)

Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) movie poster

director Stephen Herek
viewed: 08/22/2014

A couple  years back I thought about Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, that my kids might enjoy it.  I showed them the old trailer from the internet and it was met with mild interest (I find that old trailers rarely have the effect of their time and intention).  But a couple years passed and the kids heard about the movie from their cousins and asked to queue it up.  The time was nigh.

I had seen Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure originally back in 1989 at the dollar movies in Gainesville, FL.  The dollar movies.  Man, that was a great thing for the brief moment in time that those existed.  I would see just about anything for a dollar.

The goofy comedy about the two sweet but intelligence-challenged teenage dudes from San Dimas who are visited by an emissary from the future to help them pass a history final by taking them back in time to experience it first-hand, well, it’s still quite a lark.  Starring Alex Winter and Keanu Reeves as Bill and Ted, it’s light, fun, extremely good-natured comedy that holds up well for what it is.

I mean, it was never great, but it was fun.  And it still is.

My kids are 10 and almost 13 at the moment, and they really enjoyed it.  Probably more so than I ever did.  Though I possibly enjoyed it more now watching it with them.

Bill and Ted always struck me as “cleaner” versions of Spicoli from Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), though Bill and Ted aren’t partakers of weed (at least not in the context of the movie).  They are just pretty dumb.  Naturally.

But they are also super-sweet and positive and good-humored.  Which is one of the characteristics of the film that give it its buoyancy.

I Am Divine (2013)

I Am Divine (2013) movie poster

director Jeffrey Schwarz
viewed: 08/20/2014

A few years back, I watched Steve Yeager’s Divine Trash (1998), a documentary about John Waters, his films, and his muse, Divine.  It set me on a path of viewing all of Waters’ oeuvre and an appreciation of the utmost of the man and his work. More recently, I’d watched John Waters: This Filthy World (2007), a film of a talk series that he performed in the early 2000′s.  He’s a popular interview subject in even more documentaries.

And he’s here, of course, in I Am Divine, a documentary about Harris Glenn Milstead, a.k.a. Divine, his big but bigger than life drag queen muse and star of his best films.  And while Waters and Divine are intrinsically interconnected, as this story recounts, the focus is on the life and the talented exploits of the star and not the director.

What’s interesting about it in particular is that the portrait is more complete.  Divine’s character and identity are so over-the-top and outrageous that the average person not only conflates Divine with Milstead but actually completely subsumes Milstead with his alter ego.  And truly what an alter-ego she was.  But I Am Divine pays tribute to both and is eye-opening in the process.

I recall when Milstead died in 1988 at the age or 42, from a massive heart attack and attributed to sleep apnea as well.  Milstead had been trying to branch out as an actor, first in theater without Waters and then in a non-Waters film Lust in the Dust (1985) and then in a non-drag role in Trouble in Mind (1985) before returning to Waters in Waters’ biggest his Hairspray (1988).  I recalled being perplexed by the non-drag role (I was 16 in 1985).

Milstead via Divine and Waters went from the outer edges of Baltimore culture of the 1960′s into international notoriety and stardom.  As perverse as Waters’ early films had been, Milstead parlayed this into the opportunity to become a professional actor with sights on a career outside of his character Divine and was doubtlessly on the cusp of seeing that realized when he died at the young age he did.

The film also interviews and chronicles his relationship with his mother and his family which had also come around after years of separation.  Waters, of course, was a very good friend and tells his inside perspective of the man who was quiet and shy when not dressed as “the world’s most beautiful woman”, “the filthiest person alive”, the overweight drag queen who redefined everything about drag.

Still, the core of what attracts me to Waters and Divine in their heyday is their absolute “punk” perversity and outrageous being, their fantastic films, their rebellious insanity turned absolute cultural critique.  It’s really amazing stuff, such contrast to the hippies and other forms of rebellion happening in the 1960′s – 1980′s.  It would take a decade or more for punk to catch up to them, to catch up to their coattails.

Reservoir Dogs (1992)

Reservoir Dogs (1992) movie poster

director Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 08/18/2014

Like a lot of people, I saw Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs on its initial release in 1992.  And unlike a lot of people, I never saw it again.  Until now.

Not because I didn’t like it (I did.)  But Tarantino’s films were what they were for me and I did not become obsessive over them.  And oddly enough, as a result, I think my relationship with the film is possibly less common than most.

It’s a very good film, especially at its best, which is what I would say is in the more dramatic and cinematic narrative portions of the film.  Tarantino’s career exploded overnight with Reservoir Dogs, and one big portion of this was its pop culture references from Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” to the merits of Pam Grier and 1970′s music.  Personally, I don’t think that stuff is all that strong.  The chit-chat dialog that riffed on pop culture, I think, is the film’s biggest weakness.  It sounds like it was written by some nerdy video store geek.

The film’s real coup is in its casting.  Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth, Lawrence Tierney, Steve Buscemi, Chris Penn, Michael Madsen.  Those guys, that script, Tarantino’s amazing sense for music as significant part of the movie (influenced certainly and heavily by Martin Scorsese) makes for the kind of film that really gave Hollywood and American filmmaking in the 1990′s the shot to the heart it needed.  And also led to decades of wannabe knock-offs (as well as paving the way for other very talented unique visions).

The film’s best scene is easily the torture scene in which Madsen’s character cuts off the cop’s ear and douses him with gasoline all to the tune of “Stuck in the Middle with You” by Stealers Wheel.  It’s not just the dance and the cold-hearted menace to a groovy AM radio jive from the 1970′s but the whole of the scene arc, as Madsen goes out to his car to get the gasoline cannister from his trunk and slides right back in on the song’s next beat.

It’s classic stuff.

In the time that I’ve been writing this blog, since 2002, I’ve turned around on Tarantino.  His career has gone from red hot to strong but mixed to arguably very bad to his more recent masterworks Inglourius Basterds (2009) and Django Unchained (2012).  We can debate my opinions and his merits and shortcomings (everyone is entitled to their own opinion), but I do believe that history will appreciate his work, not as perfections but for its heights and its great pieces as well as its lesser elements.

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971)

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism (1971) movie poster

director Dušan Makavejev
viewed: 08/18/2014

What was the last truly radical feature film made?  I don’t mean this rhetorically, I mean it really.

Okay, I guess it’s all perspective.  If I had to cast a vote at the moment, I would say the most radical film that I have seen that was a recent production was Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing (2012).  I would say that it is indeed a radical work of art and a tremendous one at that.

But it’s quite different from the radical films of the 1960′s and 1970′s that were getting made.  The 1960′s and 1970′s were more radical times, from the perspective of people and rights and outrage.  It’s not that we lack for these issues in our times, but we don’t have the art, at least the cinema of outrage, protest, social critique.

W.R.: Mysteries of the Organism, by Serbian/Yugoslav filmmaker Dušan Makavejev is pretty far out there.  It’s hard to imagine this film being made at any other time in history.  It is complex, addressing all sorts of ideas and concepts, but is also very much an element of its era.

Makavejev made the film in both New York City and in Yugoslavia, and it has more than one focal element.  The title refers to Wilhelm Reich, an Austrian psychoanalyst who migrated to the United States after WWII, carrying on some really strange experiments and therapies, writing books about the way that sexual repression was in many ways the core of psychological issues.  Part of the film is documentary in the way it covers his later life in the US, people who he treated, footage of said treatments, and commentary on his own treatment by the US.

His books were burned and he was imprisoned for lewdness.

His work, though, was also tied to ideas of more pure Communism and Makavejev spends time with these ideas, of Stalin’s Communism and its failure to truly free the people, people who should be freed as well by “free love”, if you will.  The film also features some unsimulated sex.  Its provocations not so much provocations as more embedded sense of what is natural and should be normal.

It’s pretty far out.  It reminded me passingly of other films I’ve seen from Eastern Europe around this time: Věra Chytilová’s Daisies (1966), Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970), and to some extent as well,  Marco Ferreri’s Dillinger Is Dead (1969).  The Czech films share W.R.‘s tone of play and politics, though these are very different things creations.

I would be curious what other feature films in recent years begin to reach this level of political engagement and avant-garde breaks from standard style, production, and intent.

The Hole (2001)

The Hole (2001) movie poster

director Nick Hamm
viewed: 08/17/2014

I think I queued up The Hole (2001) thinking it was The Hole (2009).  Or maybe I’ve had The Hole (2001) in my queue for longer than I remember.  There are actually a lot of movies called The Hole it seems.

This The Hole contains Thora Birch, who back in 2001 was riding high in her career.  A child actress, she’d already had a decade of acting and movies under her belt but was fresh off American Beauty (1999) which had bolstered her career and would also star in Ghost World in 2001.  But then a very noticeable drop-off in her performances.  In the decade plus since 2001, she’s made a handful of movies and appeared in television shows.

For another actress in The Hole (2001), Keira Knightley appears, her first significant film role.  Her career, of course, was about to explode.  In fact, I wasn’t really thinking that much about “when” this film was made until I noticed Knightley in it in such a non-leading role.  And then it came together.

The Hole (2001) is a psychological thriller/horror film about four posh teens at an English school who decide to hide out in a hidden bunker and party rather than go on a camping trip to Wales.  Only as only one emerges alive, two versions of the story start to work their way out.  What happened?  Who trapped them in there?  And why?

It’s not bad.  In fact, it’s a pretty decent film.  Just leave it to me to get more fixated on the actresses and their careers than the film itself.

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 (1985) movie poster

director Jack Sholder
viewed: 08/17/2014

A few years back, I re-watched Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) and really found it to be one of the true ingenious creations of “the slasher” genre.  But as I began to delve further into “the slasher film”, I came to really struggle to deal with the multitudinous sequels that really define the genre as much as the original films.

I guess that I did see A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge at some point back in the day.  I say this because I remember not really liking it but I also recalled seeing the third film and liking aspects of it quite a bit better.  Still, I don’t know when I fully dropped out of the A Nightmare on Elm Street cycle.

But of the films  Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge is available on Netflix streaming and I was in a mood for some 1980′s horror-ness of some sort.  So, I thought I’d give it a go.

The big upshot of the 2nd film is that the focal point is on Jesse (Mark Patton), a boy, as a turn from the first film and the genre staple as having a girl be the main focus of the serial killer.  Twist number two is that Freddy Kreuger is not trying to kill Jesse but to reinstate himself through Jesse, using Jesse as his physical being, killing not in sleep but in reality.

And third, and most unusual of all, something I absolutely didn’t pick up on back in the 1980′s but did observe this time around is the homoeroticism of aspects of the film.  I would go on to read (in my limited research) that the film has been come to be known as having had a very implicit subtext about Jesse being a closeted teen.  The murders that he commits are against his bondage-loving gym coach, stripped naked in the gym shower, and his frenemy, Ron, who actually speaks provocatively to him.

Really, quite unusual for a slasher film in the middle 1980′s.  Actually, that knowledge and reading in mind, the film is considerably more interesting.  The scene when Jesse is about to consummate his relationship with his love interest and he sprouts a giant gross gray Freddy tongue is straight-up Freudian.

Seen without those motifs in mind, it’s a pretty disappointing affair.  The fantastic elements and weird dream effects that made the first film and the overall concept of the franchise are limited and few are impressive.  And Jesse is kind of annoying and unlikable as a protagonist/character.

I’m still kind of keen to see the third installment again now, though.  Stay tuned.