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.

Hardware (1990)

Hardware (1990) movie poster

director Richard Stanley
viewed: 08/17/2014

I’m not sure how I missed out on Hardware, a 1990 post-apocalyptic science fiction film.  I’m also not entirely sure how I recently stumbled on it, though I think it was in some list on in comparison to something else I had seen recently of interest.  It’s an oddity, but quite a good and interesting oddity.

It comes from British writer/director Richard Stanley, who only wrote and directed two feature films, this one and Dust Devil (1992) a couple years later.  He has continued as a writer, director of shorts, and producer, but it seems his outing as a potential auteur of feature films was short-lived.  Which, based on Hardware alone, seem like a bit of a shame.

The story takes place in some degraded future, probably post-nuclear war.  And a transient desert tramp uncovers the remains of a robot, which he sells for scrap.  One of the guys he sells it to takes the head of the robot home to his girlfriend who makes art out of scrap and leaves the rest to the usual purveyor of scrap technology.  Only when the scrap shop owner starts investigating, he realizes that this robot is a high-grade military killing machine that can rebuild itself with any given pieces of technology available and that he just triggered it to come to life.

The machine starts rebuilding itself in the girlfriend’s apartment, cobbled together all types of dangerous items, and tries to go on a killing spree.  Even in post-apocalyptic Earth, the government is still out to tame the populace through sterilization and death by super-robot.

Comparisons to The Terminator (1984) are fair but miss the point.  Outside of its glowing red eyes and “death to humans” attitude, the robot is actually a different concept.  It’s also a very different budget.  The film also brought to mind Tetsuo: The Iron Man (1989) and its sequel Tetsuo II: Body Hammer (1992).

If you want to add to its cult status recommendation, it features both Iggy Pop and Lemmy Kilmister in cameos.  Tack on some music from Iggy, Motörhead, Public Image Limited, and Ministry, and you’ve got a slice of 1990 that you really wonder how you missed out on the darn thing.  It’s got a lot going for it.  And it gets my vote.

Chained for Life (1951)

Chained for Life (1951) movie poster

director Harry L. Fraser
viewed: 08/17/2014

As far as Exploitation films go, Chained for Life, starring conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, is a relatively tame affair.  The girls appeared in the much more notorious Tod Browning’s Freaks (1932) and in their own reality led lives of much greater exploitation than plays out in this film in which they star.

The film is kind of about their own exploitation to a degree.  The girls are part of a Vaudeville show, singing songs alongside comedians, jugglers, musicians, and a variety of performers, when their manager gets the idea to promote them by having one of the girls get married.  Apparently, based in reality, they had trouble getting marriage licenses, suggesting inherent bigamy in their case.  This is alluded to in the film quite explicitly.

But the real potboiler of the story is that the one sister is in love with the no-good sharpshooter and when she is spurned, it’s her twin that seeks divine justice with one of the sharpshooter’s own pistols.

By the time the women made the film, they were in their 40′s.  They’d been performing together for decades and had won their own freedom from the family that had exploited them throughout their childhood and youth.  In some ways, this film offers a relative point of dignity perhaps by comparison to their real lives.  I don’t know.

From reading about the sisters on Wikipedia, it sounds like their true lives were a much more interesting story.  I’d like to see the documentary Bound by Flesh (2012) by Leslie Zemeckis about them.  

Bill and Coo (1948)

Bill and Coo (1948) movie poster

director Dean Riesner
viewed: 08/16/2014

If you think you’ve seen it all and you haven’t seen Bill and Coo, the 1948 film starring a cast of trained parakeets and lovebirds (and an evil crow), then you’ll need to do some reassessment.

I’ve often realized that radical cinema variations exist much more in short form.  In fact, what’s radical in feature film length has probably been done many times over in short form.  This makes total sense, of course, in a medium that is costly to produce.  Experimentation and whimsy are a lot easier when the investment threshold is much less.  So, when it comes to feature film, you’ve got to take your radical with a grain of perspective.

That said, can you think of another live action feature film that is entirely acted by animals, let me know.

Bill and Coo is humorous, full of gags and silliness, reminiscent of certain animated shorts from Warner Bros. or MGM that feature narration over some whimsical scenario and pull any number of sight gags or puns, telling a little story with a rather heavy dose of anthropomophizing.

Shot in “Trucolor” and fallen into the public domain, Bill and Coo doesn’t look as fantastic as it could.  Actually, it might look really great with a proper restoration.

But it’s charming.  George Burton gets his birds to do all kinds of amazing tricks.  At first I was just impressed and appreciating it, but then I started to think about the fact that none of these birds were flying about or acting remotely like birds and started to wonder exactly the techniques used to achieve some of this stuff.  It’s probably better not to fully consider.

Still, it’s cute and charming.  I kept thinking how much my daughter would like it.

Depending on the perspective I take, it’s really cute, really weird, or potentially really problematic from an animal rights or treatment perspective (or maybe he did nothing more than clipping the wings that happen to all caged birds…)  Who knows?

Nymphomaniac (2013)

Nymphomaniac Vol. 1 (2013) movie posterNymphomaniac Vol. 2 (2013) movie poster

director Lars von Trier
viewed: 08/15/2014

Dude, who knows what goes on in the mind of filmmaker/provocateur, Lars von Trier?  Really.

It might be easier to intuit (or assume) if he was pure filmmaker and not a known provocateur.  But this film, from its title, its subject matter, its emphasis on showing non-simulated sex in its depiction, in some ways feels almost under a certain tinge of Exploitation.

Simply, the film follows an intellectual (Stellan Skarsgård) who stumbles on a beaten woman (Charlotte Gainsbourg) who he takes to his house to care for.  She tells him her story, that she is a nymphomaniac, and their dialog brings about an episodic re-examination of her life with numerous intellectual asides and contrasts.

Von Trier broke the film into two “Volumes” but on my watching, it feels much more like two parts of a singular whole.  So it’s over 4 hours of material, loaded with perversity, humor, dramas, pain and degradation.

Gainsbourg, between this film and Antichrist (2009), has earned all rights to being von Trier’s ultimate female muse, playing out with vast gravity all kinds of torment, torture, and humiliation that it seems that he can conceive. If von Trier is not a misogynist, he does a good job at inhabiting one, as this film (again paired with Antichrist – maybe an extension of Antichrist), is a film made with misogyny in mind.

At points, the film takes on a more whimsical tone, which reminded me of European sex comedies of the 1970′s or 1980′s, the soft-core tales of sexual misadventure and conquests, meant to play in a tone of titillation and erotica.  As many have noted, Nymphomaniac is anything but erotic.  It’s a tortuous tale, outre and extreme, and epic.

Is he taking the piss?  If he means this as a joke of some sort, he’s all in.

It’s over four hours of deeply considered loathing, sadism, and joyless punishment.  But it’s no hack job.  He gets some amazing performances from some of his cast and the film is not some slapped-together pile of hooey. For as long as the damn thing is, it went by a bit faster than I expected.  Actually, I think if I’d realized the duration that I was getting into I might not have gotten into it at all.

Quite frankly, it’s hard to imagine what he’s got left to shed on his audience.

Heathers (1988)

Heathers (1989) movie poster

director Michael Lehmann
viewed: 08/13/2014

Heather, Oh, Heathers.

I don’t know if I was the target audience for Heathers but at 19, I had just hugely fallen for Winona Ryder after seeing her in Beetlejuice (1987) and this, the sharpest and darkest of teen comedies of its day, the anti-John Hughes film, was made to order.

So much so, I think I was always a little suspect of it.  I mean, was it really good or did I just really like it more than I should?

It had been a long, long time since I’d seen the film.  But back in the day, I probably watched it as much as I watched any movie.  This was doubtlessly the apex or so of my Winona fixation.  And this may well be her best film.

You know, the film really does hold up.  It’s funny, it’s campy, it’s loaded with bizarre over-the-top teenage dialog that you probably never heard anyone ever utter outside of this movie but catches a certain je ne sais quoi and is pretty freaking hilarious.  It’s packed with snarky cynicism that so aptly captured the zeitgeist of this Reagan-Bush era late 1980′s malaise.  Everyone is creepy, crappy, and shallow.

Christian Slater used to grate on my more back in the day, channeling his Jack Nicholson intensely.  Maybe I could chalk it more up to pure jealousy or envy.  He’s quite good.

It is what it is, a real artifact of its time.  I was struck by the scene in which J.D. (Slater) pulls a gun and shoots blanks at the two bullies in the lunchroom.  You’d have to file that and the level of punishment doled out as an exemplar of pre-Columbine high school culture.

The film is ripe for interpretation, probably from a number of angles, most likely of course that being the teen or high school film.  And from my viewing, I actually want to give it the credit that I was always a bit more dubious about back in the day.  It is funny.  It is sharp.  It’s clever and timely and still plays very well.

I honestly thought at the time that Michael Lehmann would go on to great things (proof that even early on I ascribed to an auteurist perspective of some sort.)  He didn’t, of course.

And Winona.  I hold a soft spot for her that is entirely hers alone.

D.O.A. (1950)

D.O.A. (1950) movie poster

director Rudolph Maté
viewed: 08/13/2014

Rudolph Maté’s 1950 film noir, D.O.A., is probably one of the best films noir depending on the length and depth of your list.  It comes from a short-lived independent film studio, Cardinal Pictures, and has fallen into the public domain, like another of my favorite noirs, Detour (1945), it suggests what could have been with these independent studios cranking out genre movies during the heyday of Hollywood.  Shot in parts both in San Francisco and Los Angeles, it even has the double element of locale, with really interesting and cool location shots of both cities.

I was actually first introduced to it by the rather poor by comparison 1988 remake of the film that starred Dennis Quaid and Meg Ryan (which had a nice poster design, I always thought).  But it wasn’t til years later I finally saw the original.

It’s a plot set up that sells itself:  A man walks into a police station and says that he wants to report a murder: his own.  He’s been poisoned with some nuclear luminescent poison while on a weekend trip to San Francisco.  It’s only in the attempt to unravel why anyone would want to have him killed that he comes to realize his love for his gal at home and the odd, convoluted world of crime and punishment.

The movie has tons going for it.  I particularly liked Neville Brand and the sleazy trigger-happy thug.

Great stuff.

Memento (2000)

Memento (2000) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 08/11/2014

I saw Memento back in 2000 when it came out, like a lot of people did.  I really liked it and it certainly is one of those kinds of movies that seems to call out for repeat viewings, especially with its intricate reverse chronology that creates the mystery out of trying to figure out what’s going on.  But all these years since, I hadn’t ever seen it again.

Unsurprisingly, Christopher Nolan has gone on to become one of Hollywood’s most successful big name artist-type directors.  Arguably, he’s only made one other movie in the complex, convoluted nontraditional narrative style for which Memento is so well known.  That would be his also head-trippy Inception (2010).  And while both of these two movies are among his best, maybe you don’t want to become the guy whose whole style is based on strange narrative gimmicks.

The thing is, Memento is good, quite good.  I’ve long thought since this film that Guy Pearce only seemed to appear in really good movies.  Carrie-Anne Moss…what a beauty.

The mystery of the guy whose short-term memory is shot, having to write notes to himself, even onto himself, as he tries to figure out who murdered his wife.  It’s become one of those short-hand cliches, “you know, like that guy in Memento?”  And the whole reverse chronology thing, it’s a kind of exemplar of a type of film where the writer/director concocts a very complex puzzle for the audience and for those who dig it, they think it’s genius.  How many film students tried to make their own Memento?

It does occasionally err to the overly clever.  It is clever.  But it’s also aware of its cleverness.

Kudos to Nolan that he has continued to craft films that are typically a cut above most.  I look forward to this year’s Interstellar even though it stars Matthew McConaughey.

This may still be his best film.

Criss Cross (1949)

Criss Cross (1949) movie poster

director Robert Siodmak
viewed: 08/11/2014

From director Robert Siodmak, who made one of my personal favorite films noir, Phantom Lady (1944) and starring Burt Lancaster, Yvonne DeCarlo, and the marvelous Dan Duryea, Criss Cross is a pretty exemplary crime film of the period.

Particularly notable is DeCarlo (later to go on to greater recognition as Lily Munster of TV’s The Munsters), a beautiful femme fatale of the first order.  And the Los Angeles location shooting really brings in some really interesting lost places.  I highlight old San Francisco and old New York for mention in posts, but Los Angeles is such a common location for movies it would be a little too much perhaps to highlight all of its great moments in film.  That and I’m not as familiar with its landscapes.  Still, it’s really cool, in particular the strange funicular vehicle that passes by the window of some shots.

And Dan Duryea.  I really love Dan Duryea.

The cinematography by Franz Planer is aces.  It’s interesting because as complex and interesting as it is, it doesn’t draw so much attention to itself.  Interior spaces are framed and frame shots in interesting ways.  I feel like it could bear repeat viewings to really develop a full appreciation.

The film does seem to evoke an essence of the time.  Lancaster returns to his home and neighborhood haunts (and his ex-wife DeCarlo), a man who has been tramping the US for two years.  Here it is four years since the end of WWII and this sketch of Los Angeles and the state of America seems like interesting commentary.  Duryea is the local thug boss, and the greed of DeCarlo’s femme tilts the whole thing over to this armored car robbery.

The robbery takes place in a haze of tear gas and smoke, which is quite interesting itself.  And the film’s final image, with Lancaster and DeCarlo lying dead on a couch is almost shocking in some ways.

Solid stuff.