Motel Hell (1980)

Motel Hell (1980) movie poster

director Kevin Connor
viewed: 06/24/2015

Motel Hell has held an odd and long-standing place in my cinematic world, something somewhat notable due to the countless movies I’ve seen in my 46 years.  When it was released in 1980, it somehow tickled my fancy.  I can’t now say exactly why or what, or even if it was on Siskel and Ebert’s Sneak Previews or it was a television ad campaign or what exactly it was that made me interested in it.  I always had a penchant for horror films, had even seen my first R-rated horror film in the theater by then, the Ridley Scott now classic Alien (1979).  But for some reason, I never saw it.

In reality, a bit of an obscurist’s horror film (how many people do you know who’ve seen Motel Hell?), it also lingered in my consciousness.  And while there were many films that intrigued me over my childhood years, by this time in life, I’ve hunted down and seen most of them.  There are not too many hanging chads left on that list of films that piqued interest in my childhood self of which I have yet to track down and see.

Motel Hell tells the story of Vincent and Ida Smith (Rory Calhoun and Nancy Parsons), a brother and sister pair of small town weirdos who run a motel and a smoked meats business.  Only little does the public know how those two businesses cross over on one another.  Well, it’s probably little secret that it’s human flesh.

Which is probably interesting enough, but it’s far weirder than mere cannibalism and rather early turns at organic farming.  The couple kidnap passers-by, slit their vocal cords, and then bury them up to their necks in the garden, force feeding them and also injecting them with something potentially psychedelical.  Then when the folks are ripe for the picking…well, that part is probably self-explanatory.

The film is not the lowest of budget efforts, though low-budget it is.  Though it might have benefited from a little more gore or outre-weirdness, it leans toward comedy at times and in ways, though not overtly.

I’m not entirely sure if this was a film my parents wouldn’t take me to see or not, though I didn’t see it at the time it came out.  I did however watch it with my 13 year old son, who jokingly questioned my parenting on said irony.

Lifeboat (1944)

Lifeboat (1944) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 06/23/2015

One of the original Hollywood filmmakers to be anointed an “auteur” by theorists, Alfred Hitchcock is one of the few directors I think can be referred to as an uncontested “master” of cinema.  But even a master of cinema, be it Akira Kurosawa, John Ford, or Howard Hawks, have their masterworks and then they have their lesser films.  And of their lesser films, there are the more impressive ones and the truly lesser ones.

I’m no Hitchcock expert, but I would be willing to guess that his 1944 film Lifeboat falls somewhere in the second or third tier, depending of how many tiers of Hitchcock you construct.  It’s a different type of thriller for Hitchcock.  After their ship has been sunk by a German U-boat in the height of WWII, a group of survivors find themselves in a lifeboat, struggling to hang in there until they are rescued.

The film has elements of Hitchcock’s dramatic thrillers, with a German Nazi U-boat captain dragged aboard as well.  Is he good or evil?  Is someone else on the boat more suspect?  Will they survive?  Will others die?

The film stars the terrific Tallulah Bankhead as the chilly blue blood reporter who starts the film as the lone inhabitant of the lifeboat.  She’s rather well togged out for someone leaving a sinking ship, something that doesn’t go unnoticed by some of the more blue collar rescuees that get dragged aboard, rescuees who include Hume Cronyn, Henry Hull, William Bendix, and Walter Slezak (the latter as the suspect Nazi commander).

It was the first of Hitchcock’s films to use a constrained location for a film, a device that he played with again in Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954) and Rear Window (1954).  In this case, the whole film takes place on this lifeboat, floating somewhere in the mid-Atlantic, forced into interesting strategies for framing, shots, and narrative, Hitchcock seems to really enjoy the challenges of such limitations.  Really, while it’s not one of his “great” films, it is indeed consistently interesting and engaging.

While it’s not a masterwork, it is interesting watch the master at work.

Red Desert (1964)

Red Desert (1964) movie poster

director Michelangelo Antonioni
viewed: 06/22/2015

Over the past several years, among many other cinematic tropes, I’ve been working my way through the films of Michelangelo Antonioni.  I guess I’ve attained a certain plateau with his films because an overall sense of his work is forming in my brain, it’s not that every new film brings some truly foreign experience to my mind.  But his 1964 film Red Desert did remain somewhat intimidating, as I recalled folks back in film school commenting on its slow pace, length, and impenetrability.

It was Antonioni’s first color film, and it’s vivid, rich and strangely lurid.  The strangeness comes not from its Technicolor but from the fact that the world of the film is a ruined industrial landscape, shrouded in deep fog, hemmed by giant ships, factories and pipes, cracked cement, and decaying shacks.  Not to mention blackened detritus, poisoned bogs and yellow plume spewing towers.

Antonioni’s ubiquitous female, Monica Vitti, is the alienated protagonist of the film.  Married to an insensate industrialist, attached to a child given to faking illness, and flirting with a cold fish of a lover, she is suffering from some psychological crisis that seems to reflect itself on on of its landscapes.  And these landscapes are indeed flourished with colors.

I don’t know if impenetrability is really the issue.  Antonioni’s films are very sensuous experiences.  While many aspects of narrative are either muted or less extant, pervading feelings do overwhelm and infect.

If anything, even over the years between which I’ve seen his films, a consistency of vision forms.  Though abstracted and full of vagaries, his films share aesthetics and tonalities.

I quite liked Red Desert.  Maybe second only to L’Avventura (1960) so far.  I am feeling it would be good to see them in closer succession that I have managed to so far.

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006)

The Wind That Shakes the Barley (2006) movie poster

director Ken Loach
viewed: 06/21/2015

Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley is set during the 1920’s in Ireland during the Irish War for Independence and the resulting Irish Civil War, a drama played out, as oft civil war stories are, at the clash between two brothers.

At the onset of the film, Damien O’Donovan (Cillian Murphy) is a young doctor, not motivated to join his brother Teddy (Pádraic Delaney) in the Irish Republican Army in grass roots efforts to oust the brutal imperialist Black and Tans who mete out viciousness to the locals.  But after seeing too much brutality, Damien is convinced to take up arms and is not only forced to engage in the guerrilla war but in executing prisoners and even a young Irish traitor to the cause.

Against all odds, the battle wins out against the established imperial army, but concessions and treaties make for rifts and valleys between the newly freed Irish.  Teddy’s IRA gang moves into politics, taking up arms and essentially replacing the British with their own brand of brutal leadership, attempting to disarm their old companions and becoming the establishment.  This breaks down the sides against one another, eventually leading the dramatic ending in which one brother must oversee the execution of the other.

Loach’s film is a work of humanism and social realism, a naturalistic drama told with great earnestness.  It won the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2006 and became one of the most highly-grossing Irish independent film productions of all time.  And it is a good film.

I watched it with Felix, my 13 year old son, who was impressed by it.  I found that the story does a good job of elucidating the fractious factions of Irish history and politics in telling its personal, dramatic tale.  It’s solid stuff, certainly.  I’d never seen any of Loach’s films before this, though have had this in my film queue for some time.  I had a friend who loved this film.

I would say that as good and solid as it is, it does at times play out like a more standard, almost made-for-television drama.  I don’t know if this would have felt the same on the big screen or not.  But for the beauty of the landscapes and the natural Irish countryside in which the action is filmed, it felt less cinematic at times than other films of its genre that I’ve seen.  Consider that a qualifier, though not a major criticism.  Overall, a very fine film.

Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2006)

Poultrygeist: Night of the Chicken Dead (2006) movie poster

director Lloyd Kaufman
viewed: 06/21/2015

Back in high school, I went to see The Toxic Avenger (1984) in the theater, keen as I was for weirdness and absurdity.  I think I recall begrudgingly liking it. Sometime, not too much later, I also saw Class of Nuke ‘Em High (1986), which I approached similarly, but liked less.  Thus was my unaware introduction to Troma and Lloyd Kaufman.

Somewhere along the line, I learned of Troma films and Kaufman, too. But by that time, I think I’d decided that I appreciated cult films that were less aware of their own absurdity and chaos, less comical at heart.  And as much as I can appreciate Kaufman, I think I’d decided to appreciate him from afar.

Then came this scavenger hunt I’m on for this month and a Troma film was a slot that needed filling.

I had to admit that Poultrygeist was a pretty good name for a movie.

I’d still say that.

But this movie.  Jeez.

Though it’s made with obvious glee, it’s a remarkably crass and disgusting, unfunny comedy, sprinkled with rather awful musical numbers.  Maybe those old Troma movies were as crass, I don’t recall that exactly.  I have to think that this film reflects contemporary gross-out humor in its extremities.  I found it almost intolerable, frankly.

But I did make it through.  And oddly, in the film’s last third, the over-the-top gross-out effects and gags somehow start to get funnier, bizarre, and ridiculous to a point of actually being pretty funny and amusingly executed.

So, a little redemption.

That said, I may go the rest of my life without another Troma film under my belt.

Intentions of Murder (1964)

Intentions of Murder (1964) movie poster

director Shohei Imamura
viewed: 06/20/2015

Some films are easier to get your head around than others.  Some movies take more time to absorb.  Some require more than one viewing.  Some, no matter your feelings for them, aren’t nearly as easy to articulate as others.

Usually, I try to write about a movie pretty close to the time of viewing, within a few days, anyhow, while the film is still fresh in my mind.  Some movies, responses jump to mind even while I’m watching; others need to percolate, seep in.  Some seep in over much longer stretches than days or weeks.

Overall, I’ve approached this film diary as the types of things I would say to a friend about a particular movie, as if we were having a conversation and I was trying to elucidate the various points and ideas that the film evoked.  Usually this is not such an arduous task.  Usually it’s relatively top of my brain.

I haven’t seen many of Shehei Imamura’s films, though I have a lot lingering in my film queue, collected as they are by the Criterion Collection.  The only one of his films that I’ve written about since keeping this diary was Ballad of Narayama (1983), though I did see his film Vengeance is Mine (1979) while in film school.

Intentions of Murder is a hard film to know exactly how to approach.  It’s the story of Sadako (Masumi Harukawa), a former maid for a wealthy family who was impregnated by the asthmatic son and heir of the family, and having given birth to a boy (who seems to suffer from dwarfism), has been brought begrudgingly into the family.  One night, while on her own, she is raped by a burglar, and instead of committing suicide (which is the socially accepted response for herself), she eats heartily, though suffers through a confusion of what to do.  The rapist, however, has fallen for her and continues to harass her and attempts to get her to run away with him.

Overall, the story is about this woman from the working class, who is beset on all sides in her day to day life, somehow she overcomes it all.  Not through wisdom, integrity, or cleverness, but by some natural earthy sensibility and life force.

The cinematography by Shinsaku Himeda, a frequent Imamura collaborator, is inventive and striking, with interesting juxtapositions and perspectives.  It’s a very aesthetically pleasing film.

Imamura is dark and strange and interesting.  I don’t know entirely what all my thoughts are on this film or on Imamura or really anything more to say at the moment other than I am very interested in seeing more of his films to perhaps develop a better perspective and understanding.

Big Eyes (2014)

Big Eyes (2014) movie poster

director Tim Burton
viewed: 06/20/2015

Tim Burton’s Big Eyes is a biographical film about Walter and Margaret Keane, the husband-wife phenomenon behind a series of popular painted images of waif-like children with enormous eyes.  It’s a pretty conventional biopic for Burton, whose films have ranged from gothic to cartoony to fantasy and animation and even once before, his best film, another biographical film, Ed Wood (1994).  But it also is in a separate segment of Burton’s wheelhouse, set in the period of his childhood, the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, centered around the popular American kitsch of the time.

Big Eyes stars Amy Adams and Christoph Walsh as the husband a wife, a true story of classic 20th century patriarchal chauvinism and a life of quiet desperation for the repressed talents of Margaret Keane.  As the story tells, Walter Keane’s genius was in self-promotion and marketing, turning the art of the couple into an empire of popular decorations, hated by the art establishment but adored by the general public, and translating into fame and fortune for the Keanes.

Only the lie behind it all was that Walter was a promoter, not the artist.  Margaret was the sole creator of the images, loved or hated.  And as the film retells, it took a court case in Hawaii in which the Keanes had to sit and create a picture to prove authorship.

It’s an affable film.  Adams is always good in that popular Academy Award style of performance.  Burton lets the story lead the way and so the film works well, and like most of Burton’s films, it looks great too.

It was interesting to see the way they used contemporary settings in San Francisco, altered digitally to bear the look of 50 years ago.  Maybe more so for a local, but still, something I found interesting.

I watched the movie with Felix, who didn’t know a lot about it prior.  I had to stop it briefly to try to explain the reasons that the art establishment, as personified by Terence Stamp as the New York Times’ John Canaday, looked down their noses at the commercial kitsch, defining a stance between the higher arts and the lower arts.  It’s a little difficult for me in that I like art from both sides of that track and actually like to not distinguish the differences personally.

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988)

Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers (1988) movie poster

director Michael A. Simpson
viewed: 06/19/2015

I arguably have done a lot of questionable things in my lifetime.  I don’t know where playing Sleepaway Camp II: Unhappy Campers for my kids on the eve of my 11 year old daughter leaving for her first summer camp might on the surface seem a dubious choice.  For a myriad of reasons.  But both of the kids were pretty keen on it.

I don’t know that I ever saw the original Sleepaway Camp (1983) but I am familiar with the movie poster, the tennis shoe skewered by a bloody butcher knife.  I’ve been rather sporadically investigating the slasher film over the past year or two, but this might actually be the first official slasher that my kids had ever seen, certainly the first that we’d watched together.

And it’s a serious oddity in the genre.

Apparently the first Sleepaway Camp involved a cross-dressing serial killer.  By Sleepaway Camp II, the cross-dressing killer has gone and received a sex change operation, been released from the psychiatric facility, and has gone back to work for a new summer camp, not far from the one at which all the shenanigans had occurred prior.

In this case, the very feminine Pamela Springsteeen plays Angela, the post-op female, back to killing all unworthy campers and counselors in a variety of ways and means.  It’s less that she’s essentially a transsexual  and more that she’s an unmasked female openly killing everyone that makes it such an oddity on the slasher front.  This is no deathless, faceless, male presence hunting nubile teens and young people, but a young girl meting out deathly punishment to all who fornicate or drink or take drugs or do anything untoward in her rather conservative views of proper camp etiquette.

The campers and counselors are almost indistinguishable from one another except for a handful of very youthful-looking kids.  But Angela is pretty consummate.  She kills everybody.

It’s an odd and pretty lame film overall, sometimes verging on parody more than sincerity (though its tone is hard to pinpoint entirely), offering nods to other slashers of note like Friday the 13th (1980), A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), and maybe even Halloween (1978).  What’s most amazing about it is that it somehow engendered three additional sequels over time.

I don’t think that the kids were terrified in any way, shape, or form.  But I did feel that we needed to watch a more traditional slasher for orientation somewhere down the line.

Inside Out (2015)

Inside Out (2015) movie poster

director Pete Docter
viewed: 06/19/2015 at Century San Francisco Centre 9 and XD, SF, CA

Pixar’s latest, Inside Out, is being touted as “the best idea that Pixar has ever had” and praised as one of the digital animation studio’s best films.  And, sure, it is a return to form for Pixar, certainly the best film they’ve put out in five years, whether your measuring stick is Toy Story 3 (2010), Up (2009), WALL-E (2008), or maybe Ratatouille (2007).  It is more in the veins of those films than in the less wonderful films that they’ve pumped out as they’  ve let Disney eat their creative lunch.

I’ll just say this: the idea about “the voices inside your head” embodied as individual emotions (joy, anger, fear, sadness, and disgust) isn’t so wildly original nor is its reductively considered sensibility all that complete.  Disgust?  One of the five primary emotions?  It’s kind of problematic to reduce the primary characters of the film to single emotional range — not that they are all that limited….but still…genius idea?  Okay idea maybe.

But the film works, in large part because of the performances by Joy (Amy Poehler) and Sadness (Phyllis Smith).  And the world within the head, the spaces for memories, the mechanisms for storage and retrieval and removal are beautifully rendered and realized.  When a 12 year old girl is suddenly hit with the challenges of a new home in a new city, and Sadness starts to taint her core memories, Joy and Sadness have to journey through the system to bring back the pieces of the girl’s persona before she runs away back to Minnesota.

Directed by Pete Docter, whose last directorial role for Pixar was in Up, it’s a Pixar film as we’ve come to expect from the company: fun characters, beautifully rendered designs, clever humor, emotional arcs, and good storytelling.  Docter has been sort of the #2 director behind John Lasseter at Pixar, a solid filmmaker in that particular mold.

My guess is that the gushing reviews will sway popular opinion, enshrining Inside Out in the pantheon of Pixar films, at least in general consensus.  I thought it was good, quite good, but not ever great.  Still, a sizable step up for the venerable Emeryville company and a step back in the right direction.  It’s kind of interesting that we’ve got a second Pixar film due this year, The Good Dinosaur (2015), which is a first.  Don’t know what that will turn out to be like.

The kids liked it.  Clara quite well.  Felix a little more begrudgingly.  Me somewhere in between.

Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair (1969)

Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair (1969) movie poster

director Aleksandr Rou
viewed: 06/18/2015

I’m still new to the Russian Fantastika film and the work of Aleksandr Rou, but I’m a readily growing fan of the form and the director.  I’ve seen two other films of his, Vasilissa the Beautiful (1939) and Maria the Wonderful Weaver (1959), but this was the first time I’d ventured a go with one of my kids, even though these are essentially children’s films.  The films are subtitled which could daunt some kids, but Clara took to the film pretty readily herself.

I don’t know if it’s just the random smattering of Rou’s films that I’ve seen or just the consistency of folkloric narratives but the stories all kind of run together in my brain, even after just watching this one it echoes of the others.

In this case, there is a tsar who gets his beard grabbed by a magical being while drinking from a well.  The being, Chudo-Yudo (pictured above) tells the tsar that he must give him anything in his kingdom of which he is unaware (the tsar has spent the beginning of the picture numerating everything in his realm and marking it down).  The tsar agrees only to find out that he didn’t know that he had a brand new baby son.  Conspiring with one of his advisers, the tsar trades out his baby for the baby of a local fisherman (although this goes awry when a soft-hearted conspirator can’t go through with it), so that if Chudo-Yudo comes for the kid, he’ll get the wrong one.

However, it’s years before Chudo-Yudo acts, looking to find a groom for his daughter, Barbara the Fair, who has magical abilities and a poor list of goofy suitors.  To boil down a rather convoluted plot, the strapping young fisherman’s son (the fisherman’s real son as opposed to the tsar’s spoilt heir) eventually saves the day and gets to marry the beauty.

There are lurid colors and wonderful set designs, some impressive make-up and some interesting buildings…and even acting bears (does every one of these films have acting bears?)  This film is made 30 years Vasilissa and 10 years after Maria yet the feeling and sensibilities seem to have changed little if at all.  I consider this in contrast to American fantasy films of the time (I noted a comparison to some of Ray Harryhausen’s films before), but I don’t know what else to say.  I would love to know more about the genre and the films.

Barbara the Fair with the Silken Hair is as good as the others, perhaps better than Maria but I think Vasilissa is still my current favorite.  I still want to tip my hat to Scumbalina, who has posted a nice list of films of the genre that I will consider now a list of films to see.