Home (2015)

Home (2015) movie poster

director Tim Johnson
viewed: 04/12/2015 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Dreamworks’ Home is a slick and good-looking animation, but it wasn’t one that enticed me at all.  It did entice my 11 year old daughter Clara whom I was willing to indulge in the viewing of the movie.  There are movies that I would and have balked at.

The story of an alien race that invades Earth and puts all humans into an internment camp might sound a lot darker than the film looks, feels, and is.  That is perhaps the big oddity about the movie.  These aliens are really dumb and deluded into believing that they are doing the right thing, helping humans by stealing their planet and crowding them into tight suburbias in Australia.  Only the biggest loser of the aliens bumbles about and sets their enemies on them.  He meets up with a young girl who has been separated from her mother and learns the errors of mass relocation.

Isn’t this really a pretty grave story?  Not really.  It’s given a slap-on-the-wrist, tut-tut sort of resolution and like most PG-rated fare, everything is happy and joyous at the end, of course.

Clara enjoyed it.  It was less annoying than I anticipated, though I think it’s fair to say that my expectations were rather low.

Blade Runner (1982)

Blade Runner (1982) movie poster

director Ridley Scott
viewed: 04/10/2015

What is there to add to the overall consensus about Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner as one of the great science fiction movies of all time?  It’s absolutely gorgeous and has aged amazingly well aesthetically.

We watched the original version, which was the last version that I’d personally seen of it, maybe 15 years ago.  This time, though, I had just read Philip K. Dick’s novel from which it was so notably adapted, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and I was extraordinarily aware of the differences in adaptation.

This was an interesting point, I think.  The movie is great because it is its own thing, very much apart from the novel, not at all adhering to the novel but rather using the novel as a starting point for ideas and crafting its own vision and ideas.  This would almost never happen in today’s Hollywood where books have become sacrosanct and adaptations dare not to miss a single tangible element without a fanbase rising up in abject fury.  Really, Blade Runner is a prime example of how adaptation should be allowed the freedom to invent and play with original texts, even pretty great ones, which I would agree that Dick’s novel meets.

I meant to watch it with Felix and Clara but Felix zonked out.  Clara was a little nonplussed by the film.  I still really appreciated it.

Tapeheads (1988)

Tapeheads (1988) movie poster

director Bill Fishman
viewed: 04/09/2015

A movie that could only have come from the 1980’s, Tapeheads is an indie comedy starring Tim Robbins and John Cusack as two would-be music video producers trying to make it on the cheap in LA.

It features Sam Moore and Junior Walker as well as the band Fishbone, who are credited with the music for the film.  Actually a litany of odd notable musicians appear, including Stiv Bators, Weird Al Yankovic, Jello Biafra.  We’ve even got an appearance by Martha Quinn of early MTV days.

Cusack actually has a number of good scenes in this choppy, fun, not exactly terrific cult film.  It’s hard not to like and even harder to fathom how I never actually saw this film before.

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)

Phantom of the Paradise (1974)  movie poster

director Brian De Palma
viewed: 04/05/2015

You think you know Brian De Palma.  Director of a number of excellent films in the 1970’s-1980’s and a few notable films in the time since.  His greatness, or lacking in greatness, might be encapsulated in seeing him as a stylist with a rich visual aesthetic, though perhaps shallow in ways that might allow for a more auteurist assessment of his films.  But if you go back to his earliest work, in the 1960’s and early 1970’s, you might gain a perspective on an altogether different filmmaker.

Riffing off the Faust narrative, De Palma envisions The Phantom of the Opera (1925) as “rock” opera and the resultant horror-fantasy-cum-musical is a spiritual sibling and predecessor of the far more famous camp classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), not to mention a cult classic all its own, though culturally more obscure.

Obscure as it may be for some, I think I’ve been aware of Phantom of the Paradise for virtually all of my life.  I think it was in the pages of Famous Monsters of Filmland or other writings about horror films that I first saw images and references to the movie, and it has more or less lingered as one of those movies that I need to get around to seeing for all of that time.  Though it wasn’t until this Sunday that I finally got a chance to watch it courtesy of a friend who is an avid fan and his Blu-Ray disc.

I don’t know if it’s the Blu-Ray, but the movie is gorgeous.

De Palma’s signature split-screen shots are there (has anyone done this better?) but the whole production design and cinematography are beautiful.  For such an oddball, camp flick, it’s about as good-looking a movie as you’re like to find.

William Finley plays Winslow Leach, the composer who gets ripped off, disfigured, and imprisoned by the nefarious impresario Swan (the wonderful and weird Paul Williams, who also wrote all the music for the film and performed the voice of “The Phantom”.)  The gorgeous and beautifully-voiced Jessica Harper is Phoenix, the woman and the heart of the story.  There are a lot of great smaller roles throughout as well.

But the whole thing is a comic and camp phantasmagoria of rock’n’roll, pop, theater, sex, fame, and a hilarious skewering of the music industry through a prism of artsy oddity.  It’s pretty frickin’ brilliant.

I don’t know what else to say about it other than I’m sorry it took me so long to get around to seeing it.  Great, fun stuff!

The Dark Knight Rises

The Dark Knight Rises (2012) movie poster

director Christopher Nolan
viewed: 04/03/2015

And thus we complete the Christopher Nolan Batman cycle (the 2nd time through for me).  This was for Felix, who was keen on the series and is keen on Nolan himself.  I actually gave Clara the pass on this nearly three hour long piece of work, which I think she would appreciate.

When I watched Interstellar (2014), I pondered if Nolan had made his first M. Night Shyamalan film, suggesting that it was an ambitious, intentionally head-trippy, convoluted flop of a film.  Initially, I undercut myself on that, but lately I’ve been leaning to believe I might have been onto something.  And oddly enough, re-watching The Dark Knight Rises has only pushed me a little further in wondering if Nolan has jumped his own shark at some point.

The film suffers from its massive length but also its amazing weight of pomposity and self-importance.  But more than anything, I was struck by the film’s lack of variety in its pacing and rhythms.  Set to the score by Hans Zimmer, the film is a constant boom of import and boding.  And while the cinematography is slick and pretty, the sensation I developed was one of incessant building and looming impact, while no one sequence seemed to deliver on the release or climax.  It struck me as the tone of a three minute trailer, booming the drum of drama and promise of important stuff, just extended to three hours.

Really, what is Nolan saying?  The villains beat the drum of social change, while the hero is the rich philanthropist, who stems the tide of change by restoring the social order.  There are a variety or readings from multiple sides claiming the film as representative of their ideologies, while Nolan has taken a non-committal approach in claiming his work as representing an ideology, all while stoking the flames of the catch-phrases and flashpoints of ideas.  So what is it ultimately about?  Doesn’t that matter?

In the end, I don’t know.  And I don’t know that I feel the urge to delve into an analysis of the material.  It’s really long.  The whole Nolan Batman trilogy is really, really long.  And while I’m glad Felix liked it — and I liked aspects of it — I’m kind of glad to put it to rest and move on from it.

Bone (1972)

Bone (1972) movie poster

director Larry Cohen
viewed: 04/01/2015

On the surface, Bone seems like a typical enough scenario for a Larry Cohen movie, albeit a little less crazy/radical.  It’s a home invasion story, racially-tinged, as a young black man (Yaphet Kotto) confronts a rich white couple (Andrew Duggan and Joyce Van Patten) in their Beverly Hills home, threatening them and calling them out for their complacency and privilege.

Only this isn’t exactly a thriller.  Rather, it’s a work of social criticism, with characters delving into analysis of the state of their lives, their own stereotypes, personal histories, hang-ups, and traumas.  Self-aware and provocative more than lurid and shocking.  The dialog reckons of theatricality and self-awareness.  It’s a wholly more “artsy” affair than any other Cohen film I can think of.

But that is not to discredit it.  Kotto, Duggan, and Van Patten are all great, as is Jeanine Berlin as an oddball shoplifter.

A strange and interesting flick.

It Follows (2014)

It Follows (2014) movie poster

director David Robert Mitchell
viewed: 03/31/2015 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Undefined dread.  The unknown.  These are certainly things of nightmares.  Ill-defined, somewhat unspecific feeling that you are being followed, hunted, by some malevolent force…or even an anonymous figure whose touch may mean death or worse…

The horror film of the moment, It Follows, is predicated on a unique conceit.  There is a horror, something bad, and it attaches itself to you through sexual intimacy.  Yes, sexually transmitted fear.

Only what is it?

The rules state that you can pass it to someone else through sex.  And then it will haunt them.  Unless they die, then it goes back to you.  Where did it all start?  No one knows.

The terror embodies itself in human figures just walking, inexorably walking toward you.  No one else can see them.  The people are sometimes naked or in partial clothing.  They are not exactly zombies.  They change from scene to scene.

For all it’s originality, it’s hard not to read into it a metaphor.  For Sexually transmitted disease?  For the sexual community of everyone you  I’ve ever has sex with and everyone they’ve ever had sex with and on and on and on from there?  Some moral punishment?  It’s definitely sex-related, right?

David Robert Mitchell’s film is an interesting notion and is filmed with a sensuousness that adds an artsyness to what is typically a very genre-defined genre.

But it’s also lacking something.  Something that makes the whole thing make a little more sense.  I’ve read that he crafted the notion like a dream.  A nightmare in which something is happening without meaning and the terrors lie in the simple horror of being followed with no reasoning.  But my two cents would be that the sexual transmission component, while interesting, suggests more of a “need to know” than perhaps some other scenario.  Or maybe it’s the well-defined rules of “passing it on”.  To understand the rules of that so well while so little else makes sense, even the potential metaphor hanging over the film’s head.

I liked it.  It’s genuinely pretty interesting.  But it’s a near miss to a good film, I would say.   An interesting idea but not a very fully conceived metaphor.

Barton Fink (1991)

Barton Fink (1991) movie poster

directors Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
viewed: 03/29/2015

You know when I learned who the Coen Brothers were?  It was 1991, when Barton Fink came out.  I had just moved to San Francisco and was an undergrad student at SFSU and I was reading the SF Weekly or Bay Guardian, waiting for a literature class to start, thumbing through the free weeklies and reading about what was new and what was hip and the article caught my eye.

I’d seen Raising Arizona (1987) and Blood Simple (1984) but I don’t think I really knew who Joel and Ethan Coen were, would have remembered their names, whatever.  But reading about Barton Fink and recognizing those other movie connections, I was interested to go see the movie and did, I think at the Kabuki, and confirmed them for myself as major filmmakers.

Oddly enough, though, I don’t know if I’d ever seen Barton Fink again since.  I’ve watched many of their films over and again but not Barton Fink.

Set in 1941 and starring the nearly Eraserhead-haired John Turturo as the titular New York Jewish playwright-turned-Hollywood-screenwriter, the film dabbles in the self-reflection of the movie-making industry and the crises of creative sparks.  Or does it?  The film is also possibly another great amalgam of Coen-esque red herrings.  What is it really about?  It’s kind of hard to say.

John Goodman is terrific as the charming, insurance selling possible serial killer who shows up in the next room over from Fink’s in the rat trap hotel in which is sets up shop.  The film features a lot of bit parts for interesting character actors to pull some very funny over-the-top performances bulging with weirdness.

More than anything the film has a wonderful aesthetic and cinematography.  I remember reading about them doing 100 takes to get a shot right where a marble-like bauble rolls perfectly into frame for a close up.  Back in 1991 this seemed a real hallmark of their filmmaking.  Original scripts, amazing cinematography, high level strangeness and quirkiness.

Tuturro’s Fink is a pompous, self-loathing liberal artist who believes in social change but has no connection to “the working man” to whom he assumes such affinity.  Goodman’s affable neighbor is both the real deal, a genuine working man who “has some stories” but also a dark figure whose stories aren’t probably the ones one might have assumed.  Does the blurriness of his character offer any redemption for Fink or just show him all the more what a sham he is.  Or is he a sham?

They succinctly send up the WPA style of writing that was the American voice of the 1940’s-1960’s in its glib literacy and high-feeling.

It’s strange to not see a movie for so many years, to have such specific memories of it, still.

The Road Warrior (1981)

The Road Warrior (1981) movie poster

director George Miller
viewed: 03/28/2015

After watching Mad Max (1979) a couple months back and getting pretty excited about the upcoming Mad Max Fury Road (2015), I was pretty keen to revisit The Road Warrior, one of the great movies of the 1980’s.  I was keen to watch it with my kids, who I thought would be well into it.

Crazy thing is it’s been so so so long since I last watched it.  I know I find myself saying this all the time about any number of movies but it may well have been fact that I hadn’t watched The Road Warrior since the 1980’s despite having never less than felt that I loved it. It had been so long in fact that I had forgotten the whole opening sequence with the flashes of Mad Max alongside the images or war and history played out against a voice over that set the whole film up in its post-apocalyptic world.

The post-apocalypse of the 1980’s.  That would be a fascinating study.  Between The Road Warrior and Billy Idol’s Tobe Hooper “Dancing With Myself” video, I think the image was perfected and honed in ways that perhaps make the study moot.  George Miller’s Australian wasteland is colored by pink and hued skies, wide-angle lenses, and sand and punk iconography that was still edgy and prescient in 1981.

But the movie is way more than style.  It’s action and comedy and flash and deft characterization along comic book lines with characters who are defined by the lack of clothing on their buttocks as much as by their compelling willingness to kill randomly.  With produced Bryon Kennedy and co-writers Terry Hayes and Brian Hannant, Miller depicts the definitive badlands of post-apocalyptic 1980’s cinema.  And I say this not at all glibly but truly.  The post-apocalypse was the definitive vision of the time, never captured more succinctly, or perfectly than here.

Of course the story is about how Max is now a wanderer, a “Man with No Name” who stumbles upon a small town of fuel pumping plebes who are beset by S&M punk bikers led by a hockey-masked pile of meat known as Humungus.  It’s a kind of middle class nightmare of repressed desires embodied against a group of middling oddball losers.  But Max sides with the “good guys” (including the wonderful “Feral Kid”) and helps them on a gambit to roll their fuel out in an old tanker truck beset by the racing and rampant gang of fetish weirdos.

And really it is the finale chase that is the part emblazoned in ones mind.  I can’t tell you how much as a young driver I imagined being attacked by other drivers as I cruised along the streets of my hometown the way that Max has to fight off the crazy hooligans.  It’s not quite as great as the truck chase scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and yet it kind of is as well.

If this movie isn’t in some ways one of the greatest movies of all time, I don’t know what.

Sadly the DVD that we had needed to be watched on full screen and the images weren’t as crisp and good as they deserve to be.  I don’t know if that had any impact on my kids, but neither of them was as enthralled as I would have hoped with the movie.  They were a bit on the meh side of “it was good” and that disappointed me.  But to be honest I wasn’t as enthralled as I’d hoped to be.  Not as enthralled as I’d been in watching Mad Max a few months earlier.  But I’m going to chalk that up a bit to the bad fullscreen viewing.

I guess I’m going to have to queue up Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985) to complete my cycle before the new one shows up in cinemas.  I never loved Thunderdome the way I loved the other two but I hold possibly misguided hopes for the new one.

Mad Max is so awesome.  Be awesome again, Max.