Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)

Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) movie poster

director  Travis Knight
08/21/2016

Laika Studios has become my favorite feature animation studio of present times.  Their first feature Coraline (2009) quickly became one of my favorite films, and while none of the ensuing other three features have quite achieved that film’s perfection, Kubo and the Two Strings, like 2014’s Boxtrolls is a very beautiful and wonderful fantasy feature.

It’s an original story, an under-valued commodity in mainstream film, set in a pseudo-Japanese fantasy world in which a boy, Kubo, and his mother hide out from a pair of evil aunties and a vengeful grandfather.  They wind up on a quest to find a sword, helmet and armor that will magically protect the boy.

The Asian-ness of the characters, design and story aren’t problematic for me, but I’m curious how they are read by others.  The Japanese-ness is very much baked into the designs and themes and the figures are stylized.  And though they are stylized and beautifully rendered, notably so, these would-be Asian characters are largely voiced by a non-Asian cast.  It’s easy to imagine that there is some backlash or criticism available here.

I’m not sure how I feel about it exactly, but the choices for the story, character designs, and castings were all conscious ones.

Overall, though, the film is beautiful, rendered in part, I’ve heard, through CGI, not exclusively stop-motion puppets.  The story and characters are compelling and I quite liked it.

My kids and I discussed our rankings of Laika films after watching it.  We all agreed Coraline is the best, though Kubo and Boxtrolls might swap positions.  We’ll see.

The ‘Burbs (1989)

The 'Burbs (1989) movie poster

director Joe Dante
viewed: 08/20/2016

In 1989 when The ‘Burbs was released, director Joe Dante was enjoying a hitting streak.  Leading up to it, he’d made Gremlins (1984), Explorers (1985), and Innerspace (1987) and his darkly comic style was jelling in mainstream Hollywood.  I think back in ’89, I had liked but not loved most of Dante’s films, and The ‘Burbs fell into that criteria as well.

These days, I’m a lot more fond of Dante and his films.  He’s a great presence in interviews about movies, the characters he’s known and worked with, his own childhood love of films (which is nigh encyclopedic), just about everything.  And I’ve come back around to his films, appreciating them more than I did on the first round.

The ‘Burbs meets my new Dante criteria.  I liked it more than I remembered.

The satire about the weird neighbors in an otherwise totally WASPy neighborhood stars the still young Tom Hanks and an almost criminally underused Carrie Fisher as the average nuclear family next door.  Throw in chummy Rick Ducommun and a gung-ho Bruce Dern and the suspicions of the newcomers turn the would-be middle American street into paranoiacs on parade.

The use of the single neighborhood as a setting is a clever device, and Dante’s knack for subversive humor in mainstream fare hits a number of solid notes.  It’s not a runaway success, but it’s funny.  Henry Gibson and Brother Theodore are aces.

I always liked the poster for the film.

Shotgun Stories (2007)

Shotgun Stories (2007) movie poster

director Jeff Nichols
viewed: 08/21/2016

Jeff Nichols is emerging as potentially solid director with his films Take Shelter (2011), Mud (2012), and Midnight Special (2016) (he’s also got another film on the slate for this year, Loving, which has some buzz about it too).  I thought Take Shelter was okay, not as successful as some had said.  I’ve have Midnight Special in my queue.

Shotgun Stories was Nichols’s debut and it’s in his milieu and stars his go to actor Michael Shannon.  It’s an earnest family drama of the rural poor, and with a title like “Shotgun Stories”, much like Chekov’s gun, you know that there is some violence brooding about.

While I’m still open to Nichols and he may still become an important writer/director, I found this effort “not bad” but certainly it didn’t engage me either.  I had similar feelings toward Take Shelter, I guess.  So, I haven’t closed the book on him but I haven’t been very enthralled either.

Meh.

 

Prince of Darkness (1987)

Prince of Darkness (1987) movie poster

director John Carpenter
viewed: 08/19/2016

Back in 1987, I saw John Carpenter’s Prince of Darkness, and unlike the critics of the day, I really kind of liked it.  That was nearly 30 years ago now, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t see it again in that time frame.  But I always recalled that spinning miasma of green evil and some convoluted but totally interesting story.

The story, though, is a germ of inspired physics meets metaphysics, played out by a worried priest (Donald Pleasance) and a college professor (Victor Wong) and a bunch of grad students who really had no idea what they signed up for.  The set-up is kind of rickety but holds together in large part because of Carpenter’s masterful seething ocean of dread.

The film opens slowly over credits interspersed pretty deeply into the film, building slowly, against the soundtrack by Carpenter and collaborator Alan Howarth.  It’s the apocalypse, but some weird science-y, religious-y apocalypse that doesn’t get well spelled out, but keeps the viewer teasingly curious.

It’s easy to see how this could be a favorite of a true Carpenter acolyte.  It’s also somewhat easy to imagine this idea being re-made probably these days into a television show.  And as I say that, I hope that no one is listening.

I am guessing that where this falls in your personal Carpenter pantheon says a lot about what kind of a hardcore Carpenter fan you are.

I Saw the Light (2015)

I Saw the Light (2015) movie poster

director  Marc Abraham
viewed: 08/17/2016

Biopics are not my favorite genre.  Maybe I should forgo them all.  But then one will come along on a subject of personal interest, maybe with an actor I like, and I check in.

And regret.

I Saw the Light is a biopic of Hank Williams, country music singer-songwriter, legend who died at 29.  Whatever amount of interest his life might have held, this film struggles to find much.  It doesn’t exactly help that Brit Tom Hiddleston, appealing as he is, not only has to try to master a serious Southern drawl, but has to try to sing in the nasal ranges that Williams made work such wonder.  Usually in a music-oriented film, the music can kind of help you along.  Here, it stops the show for the wrong reasons.

The only real positive in the film is Elizabeth Olsen, who plays Hank’s wife Audrey.  She shines quite brightly as Hank’s unsatisfied love, getting the most out of the film and her character.

Hiddleston fills out the rhinestone jacket admirably in physicality, but just can’t capture the tone of believable American South.  Not that the script or direction really helps.

Special Effects (1984)

Special Effects (1984) movie poster

director Larry Cohen
viewed: 08/15/2016

It’s easy to see why people would link Larry Cohen’s 1984 thriller Special Effects with movies like Peeping Tom (1960) or especially Body Double (1984).  It’s a relatively obscure movie about a film-making, murderous obsessions, and doppelgangers, and it’s ripe for the pairing.

Larry Cohen never fails to be interesting, and Special Effects stands up, even with some rather odd casting, and Cohen’s moderate budget.  A young Eric Bogosian stars as a dark-minded auteur, and Cohen populates the film with a ton of interesting character actors in small roles.  The girl of the film turns out to be Zoe Lund, so notable from Abel Ferrara’s Ms. 45 (1981).  What might be most notable is that she didn’t speak in that film and here she’s got to play two parts.  There is a stiltedness to her somewhat leavened by her interesting looks.

More problematic is her primary foil, down and out hero Keefe (Brad Rijn, whose rather limited filmography reflects his less than ample skills).  Between Rijn and Lund, Special Effects could easily have tanked with no survivors.  It’s a testament to all else that it remains as entertaining and interesting as it does.

This was a first time watch for me and I could easily imagine how this movie could grow on one through further re-watchings.

The Bat People (1974)

The Bat People (1974) movie poster

director Jerry Jameson
viewed: 08/14/2016

The B-side of the DVD of The Beast Within (1982) turned out to be a very odd pairing.  A movie from 8 years prior, with no recognizable parallels, The Bat People is a creature feature of a very different order.  It’s probably that this MGM DVD release is the only randomized way that these two films would ever share a roster.

But let me tell you something:  The Bat People is a hysterically bad movie, one well-deserving in the pantheon of camp, bad acting, and enjoyable inanity.  Apparently, this is not news, as it has been given the MST3K treatment years ago, but it’s really worth watching if you enjoy bad movies for bad movies’ sake.  Forgo the comic commentary and develop your own.

Dr. John Beck (Stewart Moss) and his wife Cathy (Marianne McAndrew) are attacked by a bat (a regular-sized flying mouse) while on a tour of a cave somewhere in California.  Cathy unthinkingly kicks the bat into a hole before they can discover if it’s rabid or not.  So John has to endure rabies treatments, and worse for him, something else is going on with that bat, something more than rabies.

Moss has the most hysterical flip-outs as he starts to change.  But the funny thing is, he was having weird bat nightmares in the opening credits.  If he was always so freaked out by bats, what the heck is he doing going caverning?

Also truly hilarious are the actions and inactions of his doctor (who gives bad advice, but is easily swayed by the concerned Cathy) and the apparently evil sheriff, who is entirely inappropriate at the best of times.

It’s terrible.  But I really enjoyed it.

The Beast Within (1982)

 

The Beast Within (1982) movie poster

director Philippe Mora
viewed: 08/12/2016

Memory is a strange thing.  Unique in us all.  I remember things about The Beast Within from when it came out and also when it hit 1980’s pay cable.  I recall an earnest Siskel and Ebert discussion, and I also vaguely (very vaguely) recall seeing it on TV at the time.

It’s reasons for notability, though, I couldn’t being to place.  Was it an underrated classic, something awful, or what?

Well, it sat in my Netflix queue for ages as an old double feature DVD whose availability was eternally “Unknown” and yet never removed.

Written by Tom Holland (Class of 1984 (1982), Psycho II (1983), & Fright Night (1985)) and directed by Philippe Mora (mostly known for Howling II (1985) and Howling III (1987)), it’s one of the more strangely plotted horror films of the era.  The keyword here is “cicada”.

It stars a heap of solid character actors, headed by Ronny Cox, Bibi Besch, Don Gordon, R.G. Armstrong, and Meshach Taylor.  The strong cast imbues the story of a boy going through some rather unusual “changes” at the age of 17 with something more than it might have had.  The whole film is rather gripping in its way, giving way to some super practical effects in the film’s finale sequence.

Well worth the while.

Blood Thirst (1971)

Blood Thirst (1971) screen grab

director  Newt Arnold
viewed: 08/10/2016

I’m pretty late to the game in regard to Filipino horror films.  Late but loving it.

Blood Thirst was more an American production shot in the Philippines in the 1960’s, so maybe not pure Filipino, but it bears a lot of the charms of the other films of the period that I’ve seen.

Manila cop Inspector Miguel Ramos (Vic Diaz) calls in old pal American cop Adam Rourke (Robert Winston) to go “undercover” to at a local nightclub from which the girls keep disappearing and winding up drained of blood.

Newt Arnold’s strange semi-vampire flick features some excellent and extremely noirish black-and-white cinematography by Hermo Santos.  The slick production values show polish, but the setting in Manila and featuring key Filipino cast and character actors really flavor the film as well.  By the time you get to the misshapen blood-sucker, a camp figure straight out of pulp magazines, you know you have a winner all around.

Blood Thirst was the B-side of the Incense for the Damned (1970) Something Weird DVD, and the more outright enjoyable of the two.  Strange bedfellows they are, Blood Thirst originally shot in the mid-1960’s only released later in 1971, they wind up being a pretty sweet pairing of vampire-themed weirdness and obscurity.

Incense for the Damned (1970)

Incense for the Damned (1970) movie poster

director Robert Hartford-Davis
viewed: 08/10/2016

Obscurity is at a premium these days, but after watching “Freedom Seekers” a.k.a. “Bloodsuckers” a.k.a. Incense for the Damned, I might have nailed it.  This strange and pretty crummy film seems indeed lesser known on ye olde internets.

Adapted from a novel called  Doctors Wear Scarlet by Simon Raven, it’s a post-Manson trippy hippie vampirism flick with Patrick Macnee and Peter Cushing slumming along.  Cushing is an Oxford don, whose son has run off with some strange young woman and a cult in Greece.  The team that is sent to rescue him from the cult find him to be well under its sway, either by drugs or indoctrination.  Whether they are vampires or just really think they’re vampires is a fuzzy notion.

But it’s possible that there could be a compelling story lurking below the surface here, of youth culture rejecting roles of established society, being under the sway of things both real and imagined.

But it’s cheap and choppy, flailing at high-mindedness.  On the positive side, it skitters through camp, and almost becomes genuinely worthwhile.  Though, in the end, that worth may still be reliant upon its obscurity than its actual qualities.

Packaged by Something Weird with Blood Thirst (1971) in 2001 and maybe no longer in print, the double feature DVD made it worth my while.