Paprika

Paprika (2006) movie poster

(2006) dir. Satoshi Kon
viewed: 06/15/07 at the UA Stonestown Twin, San Francisco, CA

You know, it’s a funny thing.  I’ve lived in San Francisco for the better part of 17 years and have spent a fair amount of time down near Stonestown Galleria (a mall to everyone but hardcore locals) because of its proximity to San Francisco State.   And I’ve gone to movies with good regularity over the years, but I had never been to the UA Stonestown cinema.  I’d always heard that it wasn’t all that great.  But now, living down near it, I’ve been tempted frequently to go check it out when films are playing there.

Paprika wasn’t necessarily so high on my list, but the stars were thus aligned.  It’s a Japanese animated film, the latest from Satoshi Kon, whose previous three films have all gotten some buzz, Perfect Blue (1998), Millennium Actress (2001), and Tokyo Godfathers (2003), but I’ve never gotten around to any of them.  Paprika has actually been getting some pretty good reviews.

I have this weird thing with anime.  I like feature films and so much of anime is just low-budget televisions shows, far too much to filter through for me.  That said, I am a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki, whose work totally transcends any monikers or categorization.  I just don’t think that much of what comes up through the distribution channels meets that quality.

Paprika, however, is quite good.  The narrative surrounds a device that allows people to record their dreams and allows others to enter their dreams.  When a couple of these prototype devices are stolen, suddenly a dream terrorist strikes and things rapidly spiral out of control with crazy dream imagery crashing through into one another.  Some of the images are quite striking and interesting and the film certainly has a lot going on beyond that narrative, comparing dream experience to cinema, and broaching some subjects along the lines of reality vs. dream, existence and all.

I guess this is the film’s weakness.  Its intellectual attempts stab out of its depth, and/or maybe are badly translated.   Character development isn’t too strong either.  All of the primary characters are pretty standard issue.  The story itself unfolds interestingly, keeping the pace up, and shining in sequences of visual spectacle.  Paprika is definitely above average, and Satoshi Kon is likely above average, too.  I’ll have to queue up some of his other films.

Häxan

Haxan (1922) movie poster

(1922) dir. Benjamin Christensen
viewed: 06/15/07

Häxan is an amazing find, an amazing film, utterly, utterly unique and fascinating.  One of the first cinematic documentaries, though also much more than a standard approach to documentary, Häxan is writer/director Benjamin Christensen’s masterpiece of silent cinema.

Christensen delves into the history of witchcraft, starting with an analysis of ancient art that depicts Satan and devil worship, and then moves into sequences of 15th Century Dark Age witchcraft.  He breaks it into three main focal points.  First, those who actually practiced some sorts of Pagan rituals or traditional medicines, potentially others who truly practiced “magic’.  But mainly, he focuses on the church and the traveling priests who tried and executed “millions” of would-be witches who were merely victims of paranoia and zealotry.  And thirdly, he suggests that some women who were considered witches probably suffered from types of mental illness (he suggests “hysteria” which is its own form of mythology itself), but his view is quite insightful and humanistic.

Of the film’s many qualities, the visual imagery and cinematography is vivid and amazing.  Christensen depicts hell, the devil, demons, witches flying through the air on broomsticks, even portrays with some elegant models, images of the universe as seen by ancients and Dark Age thinking.  Christensen plays the Devil himself and the sequences of the raging nuns and the ass-kissing witches (literally) are wild and amazing.

It’s truly unlike anything I have ever seen.  It’s a tremendously fascinating, beautifully made, and visionary.  A true work of genius.

Strange Behavior

Strange Behavior (1981) movie poster

(1981) dir. Michael Laughlin
viewed: 06/13/07

I’d read a brief article about this film in the San Francisco Chronicle some weeks back that it was playing, a lost 1980’s horror flick.  It sounded kind of interesting.  I’d queued it up on Netflix, and eventually it made it’s way into my DVD player.

It’s kind of interesting.  It is an interesting glimpse into the dawn of the 1980’s, really of its time.  It’s about teenagers possessed by mad scientists, eking out revenge on some townfolk who upbraided them years before.  Actually, none of it really makes that much sense if you really think about it.  It’s best probably not to.

In all, it’s decent, but vaguely boring.  There was a notable bit to the soundtrack, which was by Tangerine Dream.  It includes a Boys Next Door song on the soundtrack, Nick Cave and The Birthday Party’s earlier incarnation before they became The Birthday Party.  Kinda cool, really.

The film has its moments, so if you like dredging the 1980’s in genre films, it’s not a bad one to have on the list.

Bad Bugs Bunny

viewed: 06/10/07 at the Roxie Cinema, SF, CA

I wasn’t really sure how to categorize this.  Typically, my film diary is focused on feature films watched in full, and I certainly have watched my share of animation shorts over the period of time that I have been writing here, full video compilations of Warner Brothers, Tex Avery MGM, and Betty Boop among others.  I really, really like animation, particularly pre-WWII animation.  I find it an amazing expression of the culture and arts of the period, and though it quickly developed its own shorthand cliches and typicalities, the animation of the period is explosively radical and open, spewing imagery from the cultural Id.

Interestingly enough, that is really what this show, this collection of 10 Warner Brothers shorts primarily from the 1930’s-1940’s, just up til WWII, is completely comprised of.  The films from this show have been suppressed or banned for various reasons, mostly due to racist imagery, sexism, or violence, though in one case, the film Let It Be Me (1936) directed by Friz Freleng was suppressed due to a lawsuit filed by Bing Crosby in regards to a caricature of him.

Of the 10 films, I’d only seen 2 or 3 of them before, the most notable highlights being Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943) and Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs (1943), both by the brilliant director Robert Clampett, which in attempt to create a lively jazz-themed mania, end up creating some of the most outrageously tasteless Black stereotypes of the era.  The films themselves are amazing, especially Coal Black, which is probably one of the most-appreciated yet rarely screened films of the Warner Brothers animation studio heydey.

Contemporary viewers regard these films typically with shock and revulsion to the ribald stereotypes (which are indeed quite incredible – they are ridiculous and ugly) and the suppression of these films is the corporation’s fear of lawsuits.  And the uninitiated viewer might only be capable of being offended, especially when these films are not viewed within the understanding of their cultural context, not by any means justifying them, but recognizing that they express something that was existed, a mentality, a way of seeing, a sampling of the time, and that now they are an historical document perhaps of the American psyche (though certainly not all Americans).

They are also art in their own right, coming from the ripest period in Warner Brothers animation, by some of their most talented teams.  Animation and cartoons from this period have common depictions of things that are not accepted today.  I have often noted myself that some of these stereotypes are so outdated, that a child might not even see some of these characters as representative of things that they could recognize.  If one was to make films with this level of caricature of cultures today, the images would be vastly different and would represent characteristics of our contemporary landscape.  I’ve often wondered why Apu from The Simpsons has not taken more flak as a cultural stereotype.

Animation of this period in general is not screened frequently enough.  There is a chaos and a lunacy that is deeply tapped into.  It’s a form that played mainstream theaters alongside the major feature films of the day and typically were produced by large studios.  To me, they seem to reach far beyond the mores and traditions that were being depicted at the time, they lean further into the landscape of the unconscious, bounding around with a breakneck pace and playing with many of the contemporary Modernist motifs that were in fashion in the visual arts.  The fact that these films were popular media, while at the same time snapping out at the edges of the medium, speaks to why they carry so much cultural baggage of their era.  But this is why they are richer still today in many ways. It’s a vantage point to look back into the cultural landscape and psyche of the time and of the America for which they were made.

Surf’s Up

Surf's Up (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Ash Brannon, Chris Buck
viewed: 06/09/07 at UA Emerybay 10, Emeryville, CA

I don’t know why they called this movie, Surf’s Up, since it’s such a cliche phrase and the fact that this movie will probably always be known as “that surfing penguin movie”, though doubtlessly, sequels, even direct-to-video sequels will need suffixes typically attached as “Surf’s Up 2: The Second Surfing Penguin Movie”.

I mean, that’s that.  It’s the movie about surfing penguins.  It’s done in “mockumentary” style, which really only sort of worked.  Actually, I think it made it a lot more stilted from a narrative perspective.  All the talking to the camera moved away from potential build-ups to funnier moments or even better drama.  Of course, the film is a faux documentary that follows a sense of true surfing history, though via penguins.  And it has an aura of honoring the sport that is genuine, unlike some other films that I’ve seen.

Oddly, I think that the film’s message, about enjoying “surfing” and not worrying about competition comes across fairly well and maybe because of the film’s attitude toward surfing, somehow this cliche ends up playing out with greater legitimacy.

All in all, it’s a decent flick.  Not the best by any means, but not the worst either.  My son was very excited about seeing it from his first notice of it months ago and I think that he enjoyed it pretty well.  There was a little unnecessary cursing, if you ask me and probably that is what made this PG instead of G.  I didn’t really understand why they needed that, to be honest.

Coup de torchon

Coup de torchon (1981) movie poster

(1981) dir. Bertrand Tavernier
viewed: 06/08/07

This is a film that I had been interested in seeing for many years, but it’s obscurity on DVD made it hard, and also, I just never got around to it.  Adapted from Jim Thompson’s novel, Pop. 1280, the film takes the small west Texas town location to Senegal circa 1938, but keeps the bulk of the story arc and details and criticism and pessimism intact.  Thompson is one of my favorite authors, the “Dimestore Dostoevsky”, who wrote in pulp genres, but really elevated the content, created dark, fascinating, complex and interestingly structured works, and adaptations of his works are a scattered bunch.

Even though the setting is dramatically different, I felt myself tracing the acts through my memory of the novel, which I last read about 4 years ago.  It’s very funny, actually.  While Philippe Noiret looks very different from the Lou Ford of Pop. 1280, and in some ways seems more charming and goofy, he plays the same role, as the local sheriff of a small town/village, who is or pretends to be a stooge who doesn’t do his job or have anyone’s respect and doesn’t really care about anything.  After the teasing and joking of a neighboring sheriff, a light bulb clicks on in Noiret’s head, a change in his understanding of the world, and he steps over from some lost agnostic apathy into a sly and vengeful destructor, killing or implicating and framing the people in his life who have caused him trouble.

He is also transformed by his relationship with a schoolteacher, a virginal figure, a platonic, transcendent love.  There is definitely the whole virgin/whore thing with his female relationships, and ultimately he sets up his lover to murder his wife and his wife’s incestuous brother, forcing her to go on the lam.

Additionally to the re-envisioning the location and period setting, there is a strong anti-racism critique, which shifts into an interesting take as he ends up killing one of the Africans that trusts him because he became aware of the crimes that Noiret had committed.  The ambiguity of his utter a-morality is most explicit then.  And set as well, against the coming of WWII, the invasion of France, there is more happening from a political perspective as well.

I thought that the film was an interesting and good adaptation and that Noiret was especially good.  The black humor of the novel, which itself was a re-working of Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, is carried forth, though I think that the danger and psychological split that Lou Ford goes through is transformed into a perhaps more “French” type from an American?  That could be an interesting thought.  Though the French were among the first to appreciate the Roman noir, the American pulps of the 1940’s-1950’s, those pulps are intensely American, though, one might say that their pessimism and cultural critique is of a more existential or nihilistic, a more philosophical and translatable nature.

Narcotic

Narcotic (1933) movie poster

(1933) dir. Dwain Esper
viewed: 06/04/07

Paired with the amazing Maniac (1934) on a DVD from Kino Video, director Dwain Esper’s earlier exploitation film, Narcotic, is actually, while still incredibly low-budget and campy and exploitative, manages to tell a moderately compelling story about a medical student turned junkie, as a cautionary tale of the dangers of drug addiction.

The film has a number of notable things about it: the explicit depiction of drug-taking (smoking opium, snorting cocaine, smoking marijuana, shooting heroin), the strange exploitative criticism yet appreciation of Chinese culture, and the compelling portrayal Dr. William G. Davis by Harry Cording.

The drug-taking is depicted in more detail and with some camp but moderate realism.  The “dope party” is funny but not all that unrealistic in some ways.

The character of Gee Wu, portrayed by J. Stuart Blackton, Jr., obviously a non-Asian, is an interesting one.  Though physically depicted with make-up as a “Chinaman”, he is a college roommate and peer and friend to the medical students, and though he initially leads Davis to the opium den, he is regularly a noble and wise (though often with lots of bits of wisdom that wouldn’t ever even show up in the worst fortune cookie).

Despite the positive piction of Wu, who is still utterly stereotypical and played by a badly made-up caucasian, the rest of the opium den denizen are played by actual Asians who have non-speaking roles.  One background character is about as stereotypical as you could imagine from such a scene, in period costume, just sitting aslant, pipe permanantly attached to his mouth.  Beyond the opium den scenes, as Davis sinks deeper and deeper into drug abuse, his whole apartment becomes decorated with Asian motifs and he is shown wearing some kimono-like robe as he picks up his personal opium pipe. There seems to be some parallel being drawn between Asian customs and drug abuse, even though in the dialogue of the film, it is often pointed out that the Chinese have battled narcotics themselves and have faced similar issues.

It’s weird and kind of interesting.  I think that it’s a good sampling of the drug problem film of the period.

Maniac

Maniac (1934) movie poster

(1934) dir. Dwain Esper
viewed: 06/04/07

Last year I watched a couple of documentaries about the Exploitation film (see: Mau Mau Sex Sex (2001)) and was turned onto this little movie of which I had never heard before, Dwain Esper’s Maniac.  It’s an amazing little film.

An independently produced film, made to play in the traveling burlesque circuit, it didn’t really have to worry about the Production Code.  Esper was a non-professional filmmaker, which is hardly surprising from much of the quality of the filmmaking, though most evident in the acting and dialogue.  It’s a camp quality film with some highly bizarre and effective scenes, most notably, the cat that gets its eye popped out and then eaten by the titular Maniac.  A clever sequence in which a one-eyed feline and a glass eye makes for a pretty creepy little moment reckoning of Un chien andalou‘s (1929) notorious eye-slicing.

There are cats all over the place in this film, and a finale that is ripped out of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Black Cat.  One of the other totally hilarious and bizarre episodes is the neighbor cat farmer, who keeps cats for their pelts, describing his reasoning for keeping rats as well (something like: “rats eat raw meat–you know, cat carcasses…so the rats eat the cats, the cats eat the rats, and I get the skins!”)  Cats fighting cats, cats fighting dogs, a brawling, clothes-rending, syringe-laden “cat fight”.  Does this movie have it all?

Yes.  Zombie resurrection, a great psychotic meltdown after a patient is injected with adrenaline instead of “water”, who then carries off the zombie woman and strips her and rapes her.  Yes, gratuitous nudity.  Was this film really made in the 1930’s?  It contains so much of what one would expect in the 1960’s in the films of Herschell Gordon Lewis.

One of the other great effects in the film is the transposition of scenes from the Finnish film, Maciste in Hell (1924), on the ranting ravings of Maxwell, the maniac.  These scenes are crazy sequences of devils romping and flying and tormenting, and then the groping hands…  I actually would love to see the original Maciste in Hell.  It looks brilliant itself.

What can I say more than this film, made initially with the intent of “informing the public” about the dangers and woes of mental illness, which are archaically described in strangely-timed intertitles “Dementia Praecox”, among others.  It’s a cultural milestone.  It is avant-garde.  It is trash cinema at its peak.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Gore Verbinski
viewed: 06/03/07 at UltraStar Poway 10, Poway, CA

Though it wasn’t getting the best reviews in the world, I had actually liked last summer’s installment in the “trilogy-plus” Pirates saga, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), more than the average reviewer or viewer and had been on board with this whole series since the “original”, a term I use loosely for a series of films based on a amusement park ride, Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003).  Clearly, Johnny Depp stole most of the show in the first two, but I actually liked all the clever character designs and special effects as well.  It was the kind of movie Hollywood ought to be able to do correctly more often than not.

This time around, the film is bloated (nearly 3 hours long) and peppering in characters and plot-lines like a cook who thinks that more will improve the flavor, gets completely confusing and ridiculous to actually try to follow.  The narrative strains are so multiplicative that I couldn’t keep up, but the whole thing kept moving around so much, it really didn’t matter that much.  The film succeeds more in bursts of action or sequences that work, and who know?  If someone could have edited this thing down, maybe a decent flick lives below it.

The casting is one of the series’ pluses.  Johnny Depp is well-noted for his hammy Jack Sparrow, but Geoffrey Rush is excellent as Barbarosa and some of the light humor extra pirates pinch hit their gag lines and so forth with aplomb.  The casting of the extras is even really good.  Where did they find all these weird-looking, bizarrely-built people to play these pirates?  They did a good job, I’ll give them that.  Though Keira Knightley is pluckishly annoying but cute but annoying but somehow manages to play exactly the role that they want: a cute, pluckish, grrrl-power chick who can kick-ass and change costumes with the best of them.

And another thing, the pirate “lords” and their meetings — stupid enough as a concept, and typically politically correct in adding in characters of every major ethnic group (uh, culture…continent?)

Art design-wise, I think this film is great.  I liked the image and the concept of the ships “falling off the edge of the world” and the pirate lair with the stacks of pirate ships is great, too, reminding me of my love for the lost art of matte-painting backgrounds in old fantasy films.  And the fish pirates.  They were cool last time, too.

They film has many flaws and slow points and is tremendously longer and more complicated than it needs to be.  One of the most glaring side notes is the weird surrealist world in which Johnny Depp first appears.  It’s meant to be surreal (he is in the land of the dead or something) and comedic, what with a whole host replica Johnny Depps and campy comedic goofiness.  Was this whole sequence really necessary?  Maybe it was trying to make up for the fact that the favorite actor of the film doesn’t get screen time until a whole half hour into the bulging “epic”.  Anyways, there is lots of similar fat on the film, which ultimately detracts but doesn’t completely ruin the experience.

I understand that Depp has said that he’d be up for a fourth film and with some of the open-ended ending, one can see this next one coming.  Will they learn from this one?  Do they care as long as they make lots of money?  Probably not.  Will I still be willing to go see it?

Probably.