Return to Oz

Return to Oz (1985) movie poster

(1985) dir. Walter Murch
viewed: 09/26/08

Along with The Dark Crystal (1982), Labyrinth (1986), and The NeverEnding Story (1984), the Castro Theater had a mini-festival of fantasy films from the 1980’s that featured a lot of non-digital special effects, puppetry, animatronics, even stop-motion animation, in which 1985’s Return to Oz was featured.  Reading about it, it sounded interesting.  I’d never seen it, but those who remembered it said that they thought it was a bit “scary” for little kids, and it sounded kind of interesting.  I wasn’t originally going to watch it with the kids, but in the end, decided that it was probably okay.

Oddly, I never really grew up with The Wizard of Oz (1939), the way most kids did.  I think I always caught it in snippets and never really saw the thing through all the way, even though it’s one of those massively major Hollywood and Americana cultural artifacts.  In fact, it wasn’t until I saw snippets of early silent-era Oz films that I became enamored with them at all.

A couple of years back, I read Land of Oz to my kids, which was too old for them at the time and also pretty far out as far as reading material, but I found it pretty fascinating.  As it turns out, Return to Oz, the box office bomb of the 1980’s, is adapted from both Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, the 2nd and 3rd books in the series by L. Frank Baum, so elements of the story were resonant for me.  It’s the stuff of a rich imaginative fantasy world, one older and more strange and dated, stuff from pretty much a century ago, yet still rich and strange.

The film is earnest, dedicated and occasionally kind of wonderful.  There are some interesting and cool design effects.  The wheelers, mad, evil four-wheeled weirdos, scoot around with long-stilted arms.  Jack Pumpkinhead is a combination of puppetry and costumed actor.  Mombi the witch, while not really so much a special effect, is creepy with her closet full of alternative heads, decapitated from the pretty ladies of Oz who had been turned to stone.  The Nome King is also a combination of stop-motion animation, puppetry, and costumed acting, and his henchman/men, the stop-motion animated faces on the rocks, are quite eerie, too.

Dorothy is dragged back to Oz, which has been devastated by the Nome King and Mombi.  But Kansas is no piece of cake either.  Auntie Em and her uncle think that she’s insane and set her up for electro-shock therapy! (That was a little difficult to explain to the kids)  But Dorothy, played by first time actress Fairuza Balk, escapes and disappears to Oz in a storm-engorged river, winding up, with her chicken, in Oz, on the edge of a desert that turns anything living to sand.

It’s morbid and creepy, truly.  And what is Oz really?  Is it literal?  Metaphorical?  Are Dorothy’s experiences really active delusions?  It’s one of those combinations of dream and nightmare that resonate within one.

It’s not a masterpiece, but its flaws aren’t nearly so evident in some ways as one might think.  Director Walter Murch wanted this film to be less about the classic 1939 predecessor and more about L. Frank Baum’s books and stories.  Taken from that angle, it’s easier to comprehend.  But it is always hard, if not nigh impossible to successfully follow a classic, especially with a general public that is less and less familiar with anything but it.  How many families read Baum anymore?  That is an interesting question because given Hollywood’s interest in creating fantasy film franchises from existing stories, Baum could be revisited again perhaps.  Could be, that is.  Not necessarily should be.  Because if they do, it will be digital, and this film will be more anachronistic than it already is.

The Haunting

The Haunting (1963) movie poster

(1963) dir. Robert Wise
viewed: 09/20/08

Another pretty great film from director Robert Wise (The Body Snatcher (1945), The House on Telegraph Hill (1951), The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951)).  This, an atmospheric ghost story, shows more style and prowess in some ways, more visual play and shock value, with striking compositions, and some strange visual effects.  Actually, the camera goes a little nutso playing out the perspective of dementia and fear.  While not utterly unsettling, it is enjoyably eerie and occasionally striking.

Adapted from a novel by Shirley Jackson titled, The Haunting of Hill House, not to be confused as I have been with director William Castle’s The House on Haunted Hill (1959), was also re-made in 1999 as The Haunting, featuring Catherine Zeta-Jones and Owen Wilson.  It’s a story of a psychic researcher who brings several people together to a notoriously haunted house in hopes of recording some psychic phenomena.  But it turns out that one of the research assistants is a little too tuned in and things go a little sideways.

Wise handles the cast and the whole of the film well.  What feels at times like it could have been a more low-budget picture, the film is allowed the space to develop characters, story, and mood at a more measured pace,…a pace that can seem a little slow, but definitely adds weight to the characters as the narrative unfolds.

The film also features a catty lesbian character, fairly out and obvious one might think for 1963.  I can’t recall, but would be surprised if it hadn’t shown up in the documentary The Celluloid Closet (1995), which featured many such early negative depictions of lesbians and gays in Hollywood.  Overall, I’d say that it’s not utterly negative, as the character of Theodora is not completely unsympathetic, even when referred to as “a monster”.  It’s part of the film’s texture in a sense, the sexual politics that are going on in the casting of the four, the potential attractions that the old maid, Eleanor, is confronted with at the house: the handsome, married professor, the young, drunken rich kid, and Theodora, the psychic, sensitive yet catty woman.  Sexuality is explored to an extent here, in a way that might be more interesting than I am delving into at the moment.

Anyhow, it made for good watching.  A good lead up to Halloween, perhaps.

Another State of Mind

Another State of Mind (1984) movie poster
(1984) dir. Adam Small, Peter Stuart
viewed: 09/14/08

Youth Brigade, Social Distortion and Minor Threat.  That’s what this little tour documentary has to offer.  Shot entirely on video, following a 1982 DIY tour by Youth Brigade and Social Distortion, the film documents the early days of the more established American punk scene as it reaches out toward the rest of the country.  Far from Earth-shattering, and certainly shabby in its production, the film is not without its merits.

Youth Brigade didn’t really ever do anything for me.  Social Distortion are surprisingly catchy and effective.  And Minor Threat, who I was really into when I was 15, don’t manage to come off as particularly intellectual.  It’s not an image of a vibrant scene, nor perhaps even the most significant bands, but Adam Stern, singer and organizer of Youth Brigade and the Better Youth Organization who put it all together, the heart was in the right place.  And ultimately it’s a snapshot of the American punk scene in the 1980’s, pimples, mohawks, flannels, and bad haircuts and all.

Unlike some other films about the period like We Jam Econo: The Story of the Minutemen (2005) or the slightly more recent American Hardcore (2006), this film was made in its day, capturing the scene and completing its production as a document of the time.  There are better documents, namely the quite good The Decline of Western Civilization (1981) which actually more aesthetically and richly captured the LA punk scene and some of its best bands.  This one rides on the surprising pieces of its merits.

Another State of Mind roams the country as many bands would and have since, though perhaps the DIY thing was truly in its infancy.  Adam Stern was quite pioneering, no doubt, pulling this stuff together as he did.  The filmmakers smartly follow the story and the characters, showing some music, but also highlighting some of the characters that they met along the way: a physically disabled punk, a young French Canadian girl who scammed her way along.  You certainly wonder where these people are, if they are still anywhere.

Like many a tour on this level, the bus breaks down, the roadies abandon ship, the bands abandon ship, the whole thing falls apart and they come home a couple thousand dollars in the hole.  It’s not epic, it’s not profound, but it is not lacking in a story.

The camera stays on a young, pimply, already alcoholic Mike Ness, surprisingly talented in his songwriting, notably on a different level from many of the others.  But again, nothing major happens.  And he’s a pretty minor figure in the music world.  But you take it for what it is.  It’s kinda cool.

Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
viewed: 09/13/08 at AMC Bay Street 16, Emeryville, CA

The latest film from the Coen brothers is a comedy, a film that many are noting as a “lighter” follow-up to No Country for Old Men (2007), their heavier, though arguably no less dark, more “serious” film, for which they won Best Picture at the Oscars.  It’s more in the vein of Intolerable Cruelty (2003), another of their George Clooney films, a much more mainstream-feeling comedy, nowhere as strange or Baroque as Barton Fink (1991) or The Big Lebowski (1998).

It’s a morality tale of sorts, or perhaps more of an immorality tale.  John Malkovich, who is totally stellar and hilarious in this film, as a mid-level CIA desk jockey whose world is falling apart, pivots the film around his angry rant and attack on the people who have made his world miserable, a “league of morons”, I think he says.  And that’s it.  Everyone is more or less a moron, except perhaps the highest ranking CIA man we see, J.K. Simmons in a great cameo, who approaches these tribulations, which end up with several deaths, with the motto of the film’s title, and he has the corpses burned.  It’s a lot of sound and fury and patheticism equalling nothing that can’t be swept under the rug.

The nice guys get whacked.  Motivation, less than greed, is the simply money needed for plastic surgery, unneeded plastic surgery, for characters too myopic to see what is right in front of them.  It’s cynical, sure.  But it’s pretty funny, too.

Malkovich is the best, as good as he’s been since Being John Malkovich (1999).  Frances McDormand works herself hard for her role, but is too much.  Brad Pitt is amusing, a caricature.  Clooney handles his bit okay.  And Tilda Swinton is icier than her Ice Queen she plays in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005).  It’s relatively light, though not necessarily fluffy, and perhaps its lightness belies its darkness, its cynical anti-humanism.  After all, we are all morons.

I enjoyed it, more so than Intolerable Cruelty.  Maybe they should slow back down to their earlier pace of a movie every couple of years rather than pumping them out as they have been in the last decade.  Maybe they need to percolate ideas rather than flash fry them.  Still, it’s worth seeing.

The Triplets of Belleville

The Triplets of Belleville (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Sylvain Chomet
viewed: 09/13/08

I saw this film back four years ago and recalled liking it a great deal.  So a few months ago, when an opportunity arose, I picked up a copy for my kids, hoping it would add to their repetoire.  On an odd day of such opportunity, we watched it together, not long after they had seen it initially.

The movie is awesome.  Unlike any feature film anywhere around it, it celebrates classic animation of the silent era, artists and stylists of that period, including Django Reinhardt, Josephine Baker, and even Fred Astaire. Utterly a mixture, pastiche of characteristics of past, semi-present, the film is both traditional cel animation and computer-driven animation.

The real beauty of the film, beyond its unusual, wonderful narrative, is its presentation and telling in an almost entirely wordless story.  All the characters are caricatured to the highest extents, with over-large probiscuses, swollen musclues, humongous bodies.  It’s an amazing venture in storytelling, rivalling WALL-E (2008) in a wordless, purely visual storytelling.  There is really nothing like it whatsoever.

The story is of a lonely grandmother and her cycle-crazed grandchild who becomes a Tour de France competitor, kidnapped to serve some strange role in America as cyclist for rote exhibition by French wine afficianados or importers.  The American critique is more clearly present in the obese pedestrians of Belleveille.  There are these henchmen who morph efficiently into a single entity when in contact.  And the titular Triplets, a trio of frog-munching, musical old ladies whose days of fame and wonder have dissipated into a degraded past until the grandmother joins their forces in search of her lost grandson.

It’s odd and strange and by no means fully explicated.  It’s not an utter masterpiece, but it does not need to be.  It is a wonderfully strange and exotic story, exotic perhaps more in its style than purely its content.  But still, it’s a strange and wonderful thing.

The kids enjoyed it, which pleasantly surprised me.  I hope that director Sylvain Chomet continues to make films.  It’s good stuff.

Revolver

Revolver (2005) movie poster

(2005) dir. Guy Ritchie
viewed: 09/10/08

Guy Ritchie, who was not so long ago a buzzing director of fun, silly English crime cpaers, namely Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) and his best film Snatch. (2000), had a promising career.  Then he married Madonna.  Then he cast Madonna in his re-make of Lina Wertmüller’s Swept Away (1974) with his own commercially feeble Swept Away (2002), and since then, he’s kind of disappeared creatively.

Ritchie is returning to his London baddies comedies this year with the coming RocknRolla (2008) hoping to bring him back on the scene.  I don’t really know where Revolver fell in regards to a comeback, but I have to say, it certainly is pretty goldarn awful.

It’s almost parody.  Jason Statham stars, with hair no less, but with a tightness of the mouth and performance to show an emotional range of -.000001.  His acting task is made no easier by the script, written by Ritchie and to some extent from Luc Besson (who seems to have the Midas touch of turning things to crap these days).  Almost every sentence that Statham speaks is a quotable nonsense straight out of a fortune cookie factory, “Your enemy is always where you least expect to find him.”  It’s actually comical how stupid these things get.  And the film is serious about them, using intertitles as quotes in the beginning, quoting Machiavelli and others with no real hint of irony.

And at the end, as the credits roll, we are shown a number of PhD’s and others, including Deepak Chopra, talking about the ego and the self.  Like this film has an ounce of depth.

Ritchie does not fail at visual flair.  Compositions and action happen in stylized, pleasing ways at times, along with some interesting parallel segments, showing two groups having the same conversation at the same time.  It was kind of interesting.

Really, the worst thing is Jason Statham’s incessant voice over thinking device.  Not only is what he says utter nonsense, it draws away from the film considerably.  I was actually thinking the film might be decent without the voiceovers althogether, kind of like the brilliant Garfield Minus GarfieldRevolver minus voiceover.

Actually, it’s not a film worth rehabilitating.  Let’s hope that Ritchie gets his groove back.  Because I am still fond of Snatch.

A Bucket of Blood

A Bucket of Blood (1959) movie poster

(1959) dir. Roger Corman
viewed: 09/08/09

I can’t really recall exactly why I ended up pushing A Bucket of Blood to the top of my queue exactly.  Roger Corman’s wacky horror/comedy, a beatnik version of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) in which great sculptural art turns out to be the clay-covered figures of the dead, the murdered.  But it’s comedy almost first and foremost, taking the piss out of the coffee shops, the Beats, the stoners, the pretentious and the like.  The funny part is that it’s pretty funny.

Really, it’s not unlike Jack Arnold’s High School Confidential! (1958), which featured a coffee shop drug dealer infiltrated by the cops.  Perhaps Corman had seen that film not long before getting this one to produce.  It’s low-budget, apparently shot in five days, and while the production values are lowish, it surprised me how good much of it really was.  I’d seen this movie back in the 1980’s, I think, at a time I perhaps wouldn’t have appreciated it quite as much.

The cast has a number of notable faces.  Corman always managed to find all kinds of characters to get their respective starts in his productions from actors, writers, directors, producers, Corman was the training ground for more than two decades worth of future Hollywood talent.  And Corman’s films themselves, while often clearly goofy or Exploitation, are often actually more than just decent.  Corman’s films are often pretty fun.

Shot in black-and-white, the film is not oozing with its titular blood, though there is a bucket at one point poised under a dripping corpse.  It’s not gory by any sense of the word.  It’s much more comedic and at times even sympathetic with the pathetic bus boy/hanger-on to the hipster Beatnik scene, scarfers of wheat germ bagels and all sorts of humorous asides.  And the saxophone wailing…it’s not half-bad.

It’s fun goofball stuff.  And though I’m inclined to add “trash”, it’s not “trash”.  Whatever I mean by that.

Rashômon

Rashomon (1950) movie poster

(1950) dir. Akira Kurosawa
viewed: 09/07/09

It’s always a bit daunting to try to write about the most important or significant films ever made, ones like Rashômon that have had such influence and impact, have attracted so much writing and critique, analysis and history.  But then again, the whole point of my film diary is to write about the films that I see, in the context in which I see them.  So, as daunting as it might be, I’m just going to start from scratch.

Because I’d never seen Rashômon before.

It’s a little crazy, but searching through my film diary, this is only the second of Kurosawa’s films that I have seen in the past 6 years that I have been keeping notes on films I see.  It’s weird because he is such a giant in cinema, with so many important and influential films, and that I actually quite like his films.  I think that films like Rashômon, one of his many well-known works, I’ve been kind of waiting to see them in an ideal environment, on the big screen, with an audience, and not wanting to just venture first into a film like The Seven Samurai (1954) on DVD.  But then you end up going a lot longer before you actually get to see them.  In fact, I am going to queue The Seven Samurai right when I finish this.

Rashômon is most famous for its approach to narrative and understanding of reality.  It is the story of a rape and a murder from four (though often cited as 3) different impressions, none of which can be taken as the whole of truth, especially as some conflict with one another more than others.  With a visual style, grounded in a location-shot forest, utilizing the ever-changing light of of the sun through the trees and leaves and the constant blurring of the rain, the film’s visual style is cohesive with its narrative questions, how impossible it is to know “truth”.  Poetic and thought-provoking.

Ironically, I watch all these forensic science shows and crime investigation programs, which utilize science to completely disagree with such a philosophy.  Of course, Rashômon would be a wholly different thing if scrutinized by Forensic Files or Cold Case Files, since according to modern criminal investigation, eye witness reporting is considered moderately weak.  They would be able to validate the wound on the man, whether it was made with the sword or the jewel-encrusted knife.  Who knows what other “truths” they could prove out.

Perhaps that is a further point of query.  What is truth, what is reality, in light of modern science?  Is there a tangible and only truth?  Does that somehow make Rashômon somewhat of an outdated question?

Okay, it does and it doesn’t.  It’s a brilliant film, one that must be considered as well in the time of its making, the role that it has played in both Japanese and World Cinema, one of the major foreign films imported by the Janus Film Company.  The film has many other resonances, that of a recently Post-War Japan, a mixture of humanism and lost souls in a world of chaos, evil, and the unknowable.  Quite remarkable.  Truly.

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi

The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi (2003) movie poster

(2003) dir. Takeshi Kitano
viewed: 09/07/08

This was the film that I had tried to see last week, an updating of the popular Zatoichi, the blind swordsmand character, a modern take on the samurai film by notable writer/director/actor Takeshi Kitano.  Actually, last week due to a mistake on the Netflix shipping side, I ended up seeing Samaritan Zatoichi (1968), the 19th in a long series of Zatoichi films starring the original Shintarô Katsu, who made the character so well-known.  This accident was fortuitous since I hadn’t seen any of these films before and wasn’t familiar with the character, really only queueing this film for the Takeshi Kitano aspect.

Regarding Takeshi Kitano, it had been some time since I’d seen one of his films.  The last one that I had seen was his odd, somewhat lacking Brother (2000).  Kitano is an interesting character, an actor/comedian in Japan who among many things, was the host of Takeshi’s Castle, which is known more broadly in America in its mashed up version called Most Extreme Elimination Challenge.  His cinematic acting dates back to the 1980’s.  Known again in the West perhaps most notably from his role of Sgt. Gengo Hara in Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (1983) by Nagisa Oshima and co-starring a very blond David Bowie.

But it was his turn at writing and directing that brought him so consumately in my world, namely with his earliest directorial films, Violent Cop (1989), Boiling Point (1990), and his best film, Sonatine (1993), dark, violent, brooding, yet humanistic films, often about yakuza and ending with a brutal fatalism.  Kitano made some fine films.  He made some less fine films, too.

So, with his Zatoichi, it’s kind of curious.  Why re-make this character?  What is this film trying to do?

From this little bit of DVD extras and web research that I’ve done, it seems that Kitano was trying to make a more commercial film, and it seems that it was more commercially successful.  He moved away from his long takes and slow pacing to more camera movement and quicker cutting.  But when asked how his Zatoichi was going to differ from Katsu’s, he pointed out that he had dyed his hair blond, so Zatoichi was going to be blond.  This joking reference to a superficial change belies perhaps other changes that he also made to the character and to the samurai genre.

Most notably, the film has a penchant for music, featuring rhythmic hammering, dance, and farming sequences and then ending in a rather odd dance number, a mixture of Noh and tap, that apparently had its basis in other Japanese filmic or theater traditions.  He also uses a notably artificial-looking CGI blood-letting in the swordfight sequences.  For me, this was an anomolous distraction.  Geysers of blood are usually squirting in more traditional FX in samurai films.

The thing about Kitano is that these weirdnesses are not accidental and I guess it doesn’t matter so much whether they work for me or you or whomever.  He’s trying to do something here, but it’s kinda chaotic.  The story follows Zatoichi and a typically a-typical band of fellow outsiders against  the bad guys clans of samurai criminals, including a cross-dressing vengeance-seeking geisha and a comedy-relief gambler.  Comedy, as I noted in Samaritan Zatoichi, seems to be an aspect of this character against the traditions of the samurai genre.

Bottom line: I didn’t really like it.  It’s a pastiche.  Not that it’s horrible.  I just think it’s a bit of an odd, though moderately decent mess.

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger

Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) movie poster

(1977) dir. Sam Wanamaker
viewed: 09/05/08

With the kids back from England, I querried them on what to rent for Friday night movie night.  Felix was pretty clear: Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger.  Or rather semi-clear: Sinbad and the Golden Eye.  Eventually we worked it out.

The third and final Ray Harryhausen animation-effect Sinbad film after The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) is certainly the least interesting of the three.  Harryhausen, of course, would produce the visual effects for on more film, 1981’s The Clash of the Titans, which I reckon that we’ll queue up before too long.  It’s interesting timing for Harryhausen, coming out the same year as the original Star Wars (1977), it is the end of an era of stop-motion animation, the end of an era only truly ear-marked by the beginning of a new era, one in which the visual effects folks were the progeny of Harryhausen.

For Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger, I distinctly remember when this film hit the theaters, was already a big Sinbad and Harryhausen fan.  It was less inspired than its predecessors, and while Harryhausen would attempt one last shot at a major special effects film, this one was not his most interesting.

Just simply the monsters in this film are less interesting.  Starting with three bug-eyed demons (a poor man’s versions of the skeleton warriors, not so well-designed), and then a giant walrus, giant bee, a baboon, a giant sabre-tooth tiger.  The “minotron”, the all-gold robotic minotaur, doesn’t really get to do a whole lot.  He stabs a sailor and then ultimately gets crushed by a big stone that he clumsily pulls on top of himself.  The best beastie in this film is the trogolodyte, the humanized good guy with a horn and scaly skin.  He’s the most aesthetically pleasing and nice to see a good guy monster.

The film doesn’t feel too inspired.  Some of the effects look less effective, color-challenged transposition of Harryhausen’s DynaRama.  It’s not abysmal.  It’s just weaker.  Felix did enjoy it.  Clara and Victoria were frightened by the minotron, so they skedaddled to watch Felix the Cat upstairs.

I am sure we’ll see more of Harryhausen’s work.  This is one cycle, the Sinbad films, that is now complete.