Phobe: The Xenophobic Experiments (1995)

Phobe: The Xenophobic Experiments (1995) DVD cover

director Erica Benedikty
viewed: 07/22/2017

O, Canada! Your Shot-on-video sci-fi is a wonder!

Erica Benedikty’s DIY Phobe: The Xenophobic Experiments is quite remarkable. I truly love that more and more of this no-budget regional homemade cinema is surfacing for our viewing pleasures.

Phobe is certainly derivative of both Predator (1987) and The Terminator (1984), with a little Star Wars thrown in. Its gloriously schlubby cast, clad in sweats and mullets, are such ultimate Canadians (am I stereotyping here?).

Really, Benedikty shows some chops and skills here, having utilized film equipment from the local television station that she worked at. But it’s really the less polished things in the film that make it so much fun, such as the cast, the performances, and the monster design. The only thing I really didn’t care for were the cheap CGI, though apparently Benedikty didn’t want to limit her vision if she didn’t have to, cheap or not.

 

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017) movie poster

director Matt Reeves
viewed: 07/22/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

War for the Planet of the Apes is the final in the prequel trilogy, a surprisingly decent threesome of films. Though the creators are apparently discuss additional films in this line, so who knows?

I have to say that this film didn’t quite work for me as well as it has for others. Director Matt Reeves isn’t the least bit subtle in his homages and cultural references. And though Andy Serkis and the technology team do a great job with Caesar, the emotional heft of the story was sort of limited.

The Steve Zahn chimp? The film is very dour and dark, but throwing in a stock comedy character is so Hollywood playbook, I don’t know what to say.  For all the good in it, and it is good, the film shows its weakness in Woody Harrelson’s scene that does all the explication and backstory.

There is a lot to appreciate too, I don’t mean to sound harsh. But I didn’t find it as good or interesting as the others and in trying to tease out why, these are the things that I come upon, clichés and other storytelling weaknesses.

 

Blood Sabbath (1972)

Blood Sabbath (1972) movie poster

Director Brianne Murphy
viewed: 07/21/2017

As noted elsewhere, Blood Sabbath is about a Vietnam vet who falls for a water nymph and sells his soul to a witch.

It has a little post-Manson vibe. Those hippie witches are sex-crazed and blood-thirsty. But it’s also somewhat romantic and tragic.

What’s most interesting is the director herself, Brianne Murphy, the first female cinematographer in Hollywood. She sounds like she led a pretty amazing life, born in the UK, then came to America and worked the rodeo and circus circuits before finding herself in Hollywood. She married schlockster Jerry Warren and worked on a bunch of films in various roles: director, producer, actress, editor, production assistant, script girl/supervisor. She went on into television and became best known for her breaking the glass ceiling in the cinematographer union.

Blood Sabbath may be no masterpiece, but I’m sure it’s better than anything Jerry Warren ever made.

Horror of the Blood Monsters (1970)

Horror of the Blood Monsters (1970) movie poster

director Al Adamson
viewed: 07/19/2017

For Horror of the Blood Monsters, Al Adamson took the Filipino caveman battle movie Tagani (1965),  a sprinkling of creature effects from One Million B.C. (1940) and Unknown Island (1948), and then shot footage of vampires on Earth and John Carradine and crew flying into outer space to find a cure for the rampant vampirism.  The black-and-white footage from Tagani was tinted many different colors (the effect of the atmosphere on this strange planet of cavepeople and creatures).

It’s indeed some seriously crazy bad stuff, but I’ll be doggoned if I didn’t kind of like it. Science fiction on a budget means for some cheap-o set designs, but I really liked the weird spaceship in space animation or whatever it was.

And the creatures: some shots you know you’ve seen elsewhere, but some of them are amazingly awesome, particularly the bat guys and the crawdad men. But as well, there are some weird shots of an elephant thingy that I really couldn’t figure out.

Tagani looks like it’s pretty fun and weird on its own. The bad cavepeople have fangs and are vampires? And the guys with snakes growing out of their shoulders? Suddenly Adamson’s Blood of Ghastly Horror (1972) makes more sense. He realized he could Frankenstein a movie out of parts of others!

Flesh and the Devil (1926)

Flesh and the Devil (1926) movie poster

director Clarence Brown
viewed: 07/17/2017

The break-out film for then 21-year old Greta Garbo, a cinematic presence beyond age and time. Garbo would go on to several other films with director Clarence Brown and cinematographer William Daniels would become known as her “personal cinematographer”.

And much to Daniels’s credit, Flesh and the Devil is a gorgeous film, with some stunning shots and some impressive, beautiful set design. The film made Garbo a star and ignited a real-life romance between her and co-star and lead John Gilbert.

Garbo is Felicitas von Rhaden, a femme fatale who comes into the lives of Gilbert and his friend Ulrich (Lars Hanson), whose bromance is deeply affectionate and really quite touching.

If it wasn’t for the religiosity that drives the moral heft of the story, I would have liked it almost wholeheartedly. Gilbert and Garbo may set fire to the screen, but Gilbert and Hanson’s friendship and devastation is what makes the picture so tragic and beautiful. That, and Daniels’s amazing cinematography.

The Big Parade (1925)

The Big Parade (1925) movie poster

director King Vidor
viewed: 07/16/2017

Often making lists of the best or most important films of the Silent Era, King Vidor’s The Big Parade has been on my list of “films to see” for some while. It’s a War film, made about WWI when it was still “the war to end all wars”, only 6 years after the conflicts had ended and still almost a decade before it started to become clear that another war would take its place.

Interestingly, the three men that the story follows are examples of different classes drawn into the fight. Hero and star Jim (John Gilbert) is a wealthy ne’er-do-well caught up in the patriotic call to arms. He’s joined by the more working class Bull (Tom O’Brien), a bartender, and Slim (Karl Dane), a construction worker, who head to Europe with perhaps little insight into what they have signed-up for.

The bulk of the film’s 2 1/2 hours is a leisurely comedy-romance in which the three, with their fellows, lounge around Champillon while Jim falls for pretty Melisande (Renée Adorée), a French peasant girl.

And to be honest, nothing about this opening hour and a half is of particular interest or stands out from a lot of the era’s films. But when the march to the front, “the big parade”, leads the men into battle, the film becomes vividly visual, intense, and powerful.

The march through the woods (Belleau Wood, based on a real life battle), is the film’s best sequence. Tracking shots follow and lead as the march pushes forward. Shot at by entrenched German soldiers, they move inevitably forward in the film’s best visual sequence.

The latter battle sequence, strafed and bombed in foxholes left by explosions, the trio fight and hide, staying alive as the battle rages. Toward the end of this segment, Jim winds up in another hole with a wounded German soldier and finds a level of humanity with his enemy.

Taken as a whole, it is indeed a noteworthy film, but it’s really the battles that transform the film into something much above the average. It’s visual storytelling of great intensity and vividness, with amazing cinematography and camera movement. The Big Parade is well worth seeing, but in other ways, I’d consider showing just the battle sequences to someone out of the context of the whole.

Also, tragically and interestingly, Adorée, Gilbert, and Dane died young. Adorée at 35 of TB, Gilbert at 36 from alcohol-related heart attack, and Dane at 47 by suicide.

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) movie poster

director Jon Watts
viewed: 07/16/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

My kids got back from camp for a brief weekend before other summer travels and I posed to them the idea of seeing a movie. Either Spider-Man: Homecoming or War for the Planet of the Apes. Surprisingly, they agreed on Spider-Man (they never agree on anything), and so Spider-Man it was.

I didn’t have high expectations, despite having liked Tom Holland’s brief appearance in Captain America: Civil War, was it?

Color me surprised. This is probably the second best Spider-Man movie, next to Spider-Man 2 (2004).

They dialed it back down a lot here, letting Spider-Man fight a more localized villain in Michael Keaton’s Vulture. He’s scavenging and stealing alien technology from government clean-up sites and selling the weaponry to small-time crooks. More like old-fashioned Spider-Man comics, the story is more concise and less existential in its threats. Peter Parker is believably a teen (though maybe barely) and the cast around him, particularly Jacob Batalon as his chubby, funny pal and Zendaya shows promise as the next film’s “MJ”.

It’s funny throughout. I particularly liked the Captain America PSA’s.

It’s not great film-making, but it’s more fun than it seems, and then you start to realize that the bar isn’t all that high for Spider-Man movies. It still has other issues and short-comings, but we all enjoyed it, and that is not a common enough result of a movie these days.

Suspiria (1977)

Suspiria (1977) movie poster

director Dario Argento
viewed: 07/15/2017

Dario Argento’s Suspiria is well-loved and well-praised and with good reason. It’s a spectacle of surreal imagery, colors deeply saturated, style out the yin-yang, strange and eerie and amazing. The interior designs are as lurid as porn, if porn was Art Nouveau.

There is a giallo vibe about the whole thing, but Argento lets the audience know pretty early on that this is not something explicable outside of the uncanny and supernatural. There is a mystery here, but it’s not a serial killer, but a witches’ coven, and a pretty serious one at that.

As vivid as it is (and it’s freaking vivid), I never encountered the memories of this film while re-watching it just now. For some reason, of my earliest encounters with Argento, it’s Inferno that mostly dominated my memory banks, while Suspiria left a much more vague impression. Maybe it’s an age thing; I was a young teen, and this viewing which I shared with my 13 year old daughter, she found it kind of confusing and weird.

It is indeed so striking and surprising, ornate and lush, quirky and twisty, the world of Suspiria is one of utter fantasy and nightmare, ruled by dream-logic, and drenched in Technicolor.

Lips of Blood (1975)

Lips of Blood (1975) movie poster

director Jean Rollin
viewed: 07/14/2017

Lips of Blood is one of the most dreamlike of Jean Rollin’s surrealistic horror films. It also seems like one of the better-funded of productions, though from what I’ve read, it suffered from some production shortcomings that kept it from being a fully-realized vision.

Rollin’s films all have that feel to me; compromises everywhere, but dreams realized and visions captured nonetheless. The locations are gorgeous, including the “aquarium at the Trocadero, the ruins at Chateau Gaillard, and that seemingly ever-present beach at Dieppe with its rotting pilings, an image of longing and loss. Lips of Blood feels somehow more personal as well, and apparently Rollin based the character of Frédéric (Jean-Loup Philippe) on himself.

Frédéric is triggered by a photo of a ruined castle and a memory, much like a dream, invades his mind: as a child, going there and falling in love with a beautiful, short-haired girl (Annie Belle, last seen by me in Rollin’s Bacchanales Sexuelles (1974). The rest of his existence begins to fall away as he hunts for the castle and the girl, and meanwhile frees some other sexy, near-nekkid vampires.

Rollin was indeed a romantic.