The Phantom Carriage

The Phantom Carriage (1921) movie poster

(1921) dir. Victor Sjöström
viewed: 04/27/07 @ The Castro Theatre, SF, CA

As part of the San Francisco International Film Festival, the Castro Theatre showed a new print of the silent classic, The Phantom Carriage, which, to be perfectly honest, I’d never even heard of.  But on top of showing it, Jonathan Richman scored and performed alongside a small orchestra a live support to the film.  All in all, it was certainly above and beyond most experiences in the cinema.

The film itself is amazing.  It’s quite a compelling experience, especially with this stunning and amazing color tinting on the enormous images.  This was a practice in the Silent Era that was pretty common, to help indicate, night, day, indoors, outdoors…and it used to seem kind of hokey to me.  But, once one gets beyond any preconceptions about films and accepts these practices and indicators as part of the regular language, it works.  And the film is visually beautiful.  It was fantastic to see it on this scale.

It’s a moralistic story about the pains and degeneracy associated with alcoholism, though it’s told in a flash-back-laden A Christmas Carol sort of fashion, based upon a belief that the last person who dies before midnight at the end of the year has to drive Death’s carriage the following year, picking up the souls from every sad and gruesome scene.  Victor Sjöström, beyond directing the film, also stars as the once happy family man now turned to vice and cruelty, brought down by booze.  While this narrative, especially with the saintly Edit, the Salvation Army nurse who loves him and tries with all she can to “save” him, could easily have been pedantic and overbearing, somehow, and perhaps this is the performances as well as the direction, this situation carries weight and emotional impact.  There is even a sense of contemporary-ness to this story.

The morality pulls a strong Christian theme, mixed with fantasy and mythology, to deliver and very powerful and moving story of redemption and hope, all against a very downbeat, sad narrative of length.

The more that I’ve read about Sjöström, the more I understand his context in Swedish cinema.  I didn’t realize that he was also the star of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, or that he had such status in the Silent Film era as a master.  I certainly can percieve that now, having seen The Phantom Carriage.  It’s a brilliant and beautiful, unique film.

And the live accompaniment of Jonathan Richman’s score was also unique and excellent.

Smokin’ Aces

Smokin' Aces (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Joe Carnahan
viewed: 04/26/07

I’d read that director Joe Carnahan was an interesting, not too well known filmmaker, and despite or perhaps because of the silly over-the-top trailer for the film, with group after group of assassins all honing in on the penthouse suite of a Lake Tahoe hotel to kill a magician/entertainer/mob crony.  It looked like fun.  A little Tarantino-y (the earlier more entertaining stuff), but maybe a bit more broadly comic.

The whole thing is almost cartoon-like, really.  The reality of the film, though, is that despite some moments of clear humor, there is a soberness to the plot, especially in the characters of the FBI agents, the sexy African-American assassins, and even in the wastoid target of all the violence.  The tone of the film just seemed off.  I mean, the racist punk characters are boldly over-the-top, unreal to the Nth degree.

The violence in the film has some surprises.  Carnahan seems to like surprises.  There is a major twist in the film that is also completely ludicrous.  Which also could work if the film was willing to play it that way.  But the film takes the insanity seriously.  To a degree.

It’s entertaining enough and has a lot of interesting actors in it.  Though I could slap Ben Affleck for his crummy part in it.  This should have been a lot more fun.

A Bullet for the General

A Bullet for the General (1966) movie poster

(1966) dir. Damiano Damiani
viewed: 04/22/07

Something put me in the mind of Spaghetti Westerns, so I queued some up.  Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General came up first.  I didn’t know much about it specifically and frankly beyond Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci’s Django (also from 1966), I haven’t really explored the genre/period despite fully enjoying everything I’ve seen.  A Bullet for the General only further ups that fact.  It’s excellent.

The phenomenon of the Spaghetti Western still is striking to me, the co-opting of a traditional American genre, infused with action and violence far over the top of anything outside of Sam Peckinpah, there is also this visual style that seems carried through the films that I have seen, one in which extreme close-ups are rapidly contrasted with long shots of the desert backdrops, punctuated with editing that accentuates the contrast.  There is something “fun” or playful, even in serious situations.

A Bullet for the General is a fairly strongly political film, and as it plays out, this fact comes to a pointed emphasis in the very last scene.  The story is about a roving bandit, El Chuncho (Gian Maria Volontè), a former revolutionary who picks up an slick, clean-shaven American, who poses as an outlaw who appeals to El Chuncho despite his cold and mercenary attitude (or maybe because of it).  It’s a moral crisis for El Chuncho who in his days as a revolutionary had fought and operated for idealistic reasons, who is tempted by the American, whose slick, clean appearance and ruthless striving for money attracts him.

Returning to a small village where Chuncho has friends, Chuncho is deeply tempted to take a leadership position and stay with the people.  In fact, he makes this choice.  Only after his former group of bandits steals his much coveted machine gun is he drawn away.  The result of his abandoning his village is that they end up being slaughtered.

Lou Castel is excellent as the American with his striking blond hair and blue eyes, who Chuncho dubs “Niño”.  Volontè is also excellent, really quite compelling and even with the corny dubbing truly comes across as the ribald yet idealistic and less sophisticated heart of the film.  The film is a striking criticism of America, from simple asides such as one bandit commenting that Americans are not good for much but they have a lot of money.  Niño is ultimately completely ruthless except for his true friendship, or at least liking, with Chuncho.  He has no morals and only operates for financial gain.  His sharp-dressed look is in utter contrast to the grimy, unshaven Mexicans for whom he has no liking.  He is questioned several times by a young boy as to how he likes Mexico and he says that he doesn’t like it but he is there because there is money to be made.

El Niño can easily be read as the Devil, tempting and testing El Chuncho.  He also clearly represents America, the ruthlessness of capitalism and idealization of money.

The cinematography is excellent, featuring some striking compositions as well as some lovely framings of the landscapes.  There is a plethora of shooting and action, and the beginning of the film lays down the action and ideas of the film from the absolute get-go, rapidly cutting the scene in which revolutionary bandits are executed in front of a crowd that includes Castel.  It sets pacing and style and the narrative in a punchy, clever efficiency.  It’s a great film, seriously.  Growing in my estimation the more and more I think of it.

The French Connection

The French Connection (1971) movie poster

(1971) dir. William Friedkin
viewed: 04/16/07

Hard to find fault with this gritty, action-packed policier, which has a well-earned reputation as a top-quality cop flick.  I’d never seen the film.  Another one of those movies that “everybody” has seen.  Now I am in that category.

So much has been written about this film and its car chase sequence is super solid and understandably oft-imitated.  The glimpse of New York City circa 1970 is interesting, the culture, the landscape.  The film doesn’t try to sell a hip stylishness, but the tougher parts of the city, the undersides of elevated trains, back alleys, etc.  Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider.  Gene Hackman is fucking great.

The main thing that stuck out to me was the treatment of racism in the character of Hackman’s Popeye Doyle, who utters several slurs, but particularly in the shake-downs of the African-American bar at which his informer hangs out.  The depiction is sort of face-value, I think, trying to reflect some aspect of reality perhaps, not necessarily supporting the rough, racist treatment of the bar’s patrons.  I guess it’s depressing to realize how probably realistic that portrayal would have been at that time (not to say that it isn’t still like that today in places).  Doyle certainly wouldn’t have gone into a bar primarily habituated by Caucasians and pushed everyone around, violating their civil rights, cowing them in ways that shows that this is a common experience for both.  It’s strange how much these two scenes struck me and how small a portion of the narrative those segments were, but yet that is what struck me.  I don’t know all of what I think about  it exactly, but there you go.

Yeah, and this movie is quality.

The Saddest Music in the World

The Saddest Music in the World (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Guy Maddin
viewed: 04/15/07

The concept of this movie seemed kind of interesting.  Isabella Rossellini is a legless but always gorgeous beer queen in Winnipeg during the Depression who invites representatives of all countries to come for a contest  for who can create The Saddest Music in the World.  While there is a lot of poeticism in this concept, it’s also played for hilarity and bizarreness.  But it had stayed in mind and I thought I would give it a whirl.

It’s shot in a steady mostly black and white, faux early cinema style, with odd movement, grainyness and masking.  Even this style is fairly taxing and put on. It certainly has a style, one that doesn’t necessarily exude quality. I haven’t read about the ways that he created this effect, but it was pretentious and didn’t play that well for me.

There is a lot of interesting stuff in here, though, maybe mostly images, like the beer-filled glass legs that Rossellini dons as a gift.

I don’t know.  Maybe this whole thing will sink in differently over time.  I didn’t dig the visual style or the tone exactly.  The whole thing kind of annoyed me, to be honest.  I used to really like Mark McKinney in The Kids in the Hall, but for some reason he just annoyed me in this film.  A lot of it just didn’t work.

There was some weird Canadian-ness to this film, and an analysis of place and country identity with each country played for stereotypical dress and music.  And an unsurprising anti-American-ness exemplified by McKinney’s adoption of the country as its representative and his Hollywoodization and commoditization of the whole process.  This was sort of interesting, but I didn’t get it completely either.

I guess that is the theme of this entry.

Night of the Comet

Night of the Comet (1984) movie poster

(1984) dir. Thom Eberhardt
viewed: 04/14/07

Of all the varying movies that came out of the 1980’s, the big ones, the small ones, the obscure, the moderately obscure, for some reason, Night of the Comet managed to have made an impression on me.  Classified as horror, it’s pretty light-weight.  It’s more of an odd, post-apocalyptic teen film, with some light horror aspects.  As far as zombie films go, it’s toothless.  But as a teen-driven pop-culture artifact, it has its charm.  And it certainly has some serious style points for cheesy 1980’s fashion.

As far as comets go in terms of potential for apocalyptic destruction of the world as we know it, the reality is there and the tenuousness of our existence could be there, and of course, this film came out a couple years before the return of Haley’s Comet, so had some present-day relevance at the time.  But I guess I always took any post-apocalyptic narratives at the time as more about nuclear holocaust and the aftermath.  I don’t know if that is truly fair.  This is Night of the Comet, not Night of the WWIII.  Anyways, that is how I found it at the time.

Popped up with a bouncy, if largely unrecognizable 1980’s soundtrack, with some cute performances by leads Catherine Mary Stewart, Kelli Maroney, and Robert Beltran, this lightweight but effecting little movie somehow carries its moments despite not really being all that powerful or interesting.  Maybe its efficacy is in more subtle tones, little things, amidst some flatter elements.

A comet comes and turns everyone into red dust, except for those lucky enough to have spent the night in steel-enforced rooms.  Some survivors becomes zombies as they deteriorate into dust, but lucid, talking zombies, which is a strange, nice touch.  The main survivors are a pair of sisters, who happen to be trained in self-defense by their green beret father who is off in Central America and assumingly justified.  The girls wander the greater Los Angeles basin in search of survivors, guys, and most notably a “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” shopping spree at the mall.  There are also these mysterious government think tank people who want to find a serum to save themselves before they become zombies.

This is a real 1980’s artifact, from the fashion styles, the music, to the video games.  And while it’s not great art, not even a great cult film, it’s still charming and somewhat entertaining.

Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof

Death Proof (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 04/11/07 at CinéArts @ Empire Theater, SF, CA

The second half of the Grindhouse double feature is Quentin Tarantino’s homage to car race road movies, which is actually a pretty obscure subgenre.  Whereas Robert Rodriguez seemed to totally manage to capture the spirit and the style of the genre, Tarantino likes to insert a great deal of himself into the film, modernizing and post-modernizing the film.  Which is fine.  In concept.

Tarantino’s worst qualities come out in Death Proof and his qualities are clear, but highly limited within the context of the obnoxious dialogue and cultural references.  The soundtrack is typically totally excellent, capturing all kinds of great music, but also drawing so much attention to it.  The bar that the first group of girls hangs out in features a magical jukebox that plays 45’s of all sorts of cool old music that everyone seems intimately familiar with, but are not necessarily all that well-known to the general public, I would bet.  The taqueria that they hang out in is postered with lots of cool old movie posters.  Everyone has great knowledge of trivial, hip things and they all talk exactly alike.

The music is great though.

And some of the action sequences are pretty hot.

But the bulk of the film is banter and dialogue between two groups of four young, attractive women.  They all could switch dialogue roles and essentially be the same people.  You could swap out group one for group two and they would be the same.  That is except for Zoe Bell, a stunt-woman who plays a stunt-woman, but is able to do her own stunts, which makes for some nice action filming.  But that said, her biggest stunt is totally stupid and is so put on that it doesn’t have any tension.  And she’s unsurprisingly not much of an actress.

The only actor who gets his due is Kurt Russell, who plays the psychotic menace of Stuntman Mike.  He actually has the best lines, the most believable character motivation, and the only one who actually seems like he’s in a real movie.

This is easily the worst film that Tarantino has made.  The pretension of his self-conscious, highly cultural referencing dialogue, and the fact that he has to “act” in both of these films just underscores the largest criticisms of the man, the writer, director, actor, fool.  His acting is actually worse than everything else that he does.  He is obnoxiousness personified and is a terrible character actor.  He is totally out-shined by Rodriguez in this double feature presentation.  Maybe he should just run a movie theater, showing all the cool movies he knows about and DJ somehow to continue to compile the music that he has good appreciation for.

Or maybe he’ll get his groove back.  He certainly needs to.

Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror

Planet Terror (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Robert Rodriguez
viewed: 04/11/07 at CinéArts @ Empire Theater, SF, CA

I had a bit of a conundrum about how to log this movie, as it has been released as the first half of Grindhouse, Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino’s homage to late 1970’s to early 1980’s trash-pop-genre cinema, something that Tarantino actually made a bit of a nod to in Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) with some intentionally “distressed” film stock (probably all digitally “distressed”) and some camp interruptions meant to imply the experience of watching films in low budget cinemas of the period.  The Grindhouse experience is more than the two films, with four or five “fake” trailers and some theater promotions and advertisements.  But I have read that the Grindhouse experience, the double feature, hasn’t been as successful as they’d hoped and they are considering releasing the films separately.  So, anyways, to make a long introduction short, I’ve decided to write about the two films separately.  After all, they are two different films and it’s probably more of a disservice to Rodriguez to mitigate the badness of Tarantino’s film with the near pure glee of his own film.

Planet Terror, a zombie flick, actually really captures the spirit of the films to which the homage is intended, a straightforward action film with camp and comedy but overall, despite its relative ridiculousness, takes itself seriously.  It just works this way.

Actually, I found the “distressed” film stock a bit annoying.  The only reason that the old films were tattered and scratched was from overplay, going through the projector too many times and not being cared for.  The filmmakers of the day were obviously trying to deliver as quality a product as they could.  And the deleted scene (“lost reels” according to both films) was dumb.

But let’s just say, Planet Terror is great stupid fun.  It’s action, explosions, spurting blood, gruesome gore, and some over-the-top stuff that just works.  It’s actually, I think, perhaps Rodriguez’s best film to date.  Even before heading to the theater to see this, I noted to a friend that Rodriguez can be fun but he’s almost completely shallow and meaningless.  There isn’t a lot to analyze in his work, other than his use of Latino actors and cultural references, which is cool and everything, but not all that interesting to talk about.

Rose McGowan, who I’d seen in a couple things before, is the one whose career will be most positively effected by this film.  She looks fantastic and she’s pretty right on as Cherry, the go-go dancer (not stripper), who ends up losing a shapely leg to hungry zombies, but eventually gets equipped with a table leg and ultimately, and iconically, with a machine gun.  This is the visual element that defines this movie and will stand for time to come.  It’s hilarious, silly, campy, sexy, and somehow, it’s fucking genius.

In a sense, that pivotal image and action defines the qualities of Rodriguez’s film.  It’s just really fun and works fully and entertainment.  It’s not deep, even with its little political aside at the end, critiquing the US government.  I’d enjoyed Sin City (2005), and I thought that he’d actually managed to find his niche, and I think this film furthers that.  He shouldn’t be making stupid kids movies, but should keep channeling his action genre sensibility.  I recall seeing Desperado (1995) and totally enjoying it for similar reasons, but this really, really crystalizes the things that make Rodriguez an interesting filmmaker.


Freaks (1932) movie poster

(1932) dir. Tod Browning
viewed: 04/08/07

The word unique is definitely abused in regards to its application of meaning “the only one” or “without like or equal” (definitions borrowed from, and people have tried to disabuse this by suggesting that there cannot be levels or “unique-ness”, meaning how can something be more “unique” than something else if by definition, it can only be unique if it is in fact unlike anything else?  Well, I like to be a purist, but quite frankly, I do think that there are levels of uniqueness, despite the oxymoronic aspect of saying so.  And I point all of this out to say that Tod Browning’s Freaks is about as unique as it gets.

I didn’t see the film until the 1980’s, on video or something, and it struck me the way that it strikes many.  There is a strange power to the film, just watching the actual “freaks” with their deformities and their strange abilities.  The sideshow was indeed captured here, and is now a fascinating artifact in a time when such exploitation is so frowned upon that one could hardly find the like in real life anymore.  The people themselves have some amazing qualities, especially Johnny Eck, “The Half-Boy” and Prince Randian, “The Living Torso”.  Just watching Randian who has no arms or legs, light a match and a cigarette with his mouth (apparently he also rolled the cigarette too), it’s nothing short of amazing.  These people have become icons because of this film, but are actually captured in their reality, too, their actuality, their being.

Seeing this slough of human oddities is still shocking today, as I am sure it will be for years and years to come.  It is a morbid and voyueristic curiosity that compels attention and interest simply because it is not a typical thing for one to see.  Especially the fascinating array of sideshow specialties collected by Browning for this film.

Browning had a significant interest in sideshows, having traveled with one early in his career, and he had a fascination with human deformity that he utilized in other films, mostly with Lon Chaney, including the amazing The Unholy Three (1925).  The film is interesting on a number of levels, and from an auteurist perspective of Browning, it’s quite pointed.  Film historian David Skal has written extensively about Browning’s career and it’s quite interesting.

The film is a cult film for good reason.  There are great moments of camp and bad acting.  The freaks themselves are compelling in their uniqueness and difference.

But what I found to be the most powerful thing in the film is its finale, which I have read was truncated due to its shock value, and the additional footage lost.  This is truly a shame because as the villainous strong man and the evil acrobat femme fatale are surrounded by lurking eyes of the freaks, preparing to dole out their “code” that “if you insult one freak, you insult us all”, the sequence unfolds into a masterpiece of horror.  The villains are hunted down in in the pouring rain by the “freaks”, and punished by being “turned into” freaks themselves, a bizarre culmination and satisfyingly shocking climax to this amazing and stunning film.

The Host

The Host (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Joon-ho Bong
viewed: 04/06/07 at Embarcadero Cinemas, SF, CA

This Korean Godzilla-esque horror film had been getting a fair amount of buzz, and though I didn’t know a whole lot about it, I had it up there on my list of films to see.  Directed by Joon-ho Bong, whose Memories of Murder (2003) was an interesting serial killer film and also one of Korea’s top-grossing films of all time, The Host is similarly interesting, though within a completely different genre, an environmental-inspired monster movie, weighted with social criticism.

Something that I have found interesting about the Korean films that I have seen, and by no means has this been a broad cross-section of the country’s filmic output, but social commentary seems highly ingrained in many of the narratives, ones in which in American films of the same genres would not necessarily have those elements.  I don’t know enough about Korean history or culture to fully understand the resonances, but it strikes me that there is a more politically motivated and protest-oriented culture there.

The corniest bit of this film is the opening sequence in which an American scientist, against the protest and better judgment of his Korean lab assistant, orders the assistant to pour gallons of formaldehyde and other outdates chemicals down the drain, implying the toxic dump as the source of mutation that creates “The Host” as the monster from the Han River comes to be known.  It turns out based on some basic web research that this incident is essentially based in fact,…that is the chemical dump, not the terrorizing beast.

Additionally, there is this whole fear of contagin, this disease and infection, that mysteriously effects and kills one American in the film, resulting in an infiltration by the American military and a pack of lies that are spilled out.  Some of the scarier aspects of the narrative have to do with the control of people and misinformation that is distributed.  There is an American who is portrayed as a hero, the one who dies, and maybe that is to show that this is not an attack on Americans, per se, but a criticism and perception of the American government and military and their approach to controling and mediating Korea in times of crisis.  It’s a significant portion of the story.

That said, it’s also an entertaining action film, with a pretty cool-looking monster, and Memories of Murder, it also plays this weird line with comedic acting and more serious intent.  This being a much more fantastical story and everything, the film shows more comedy than the other film, occasionally grating, occasionally soppy emotional, occasionally fun.