C.H.U.D.

C.H.U.D. (1984) movie poster

(1984) dir. Douglas Cheek
viewed: 10/30/08

Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers.

Need I say more?  Well, it’s funny but this movie with such a humorously exploitational-sounding title was a common point of reference for jokes for friends and myself in the 1980’s, but to be honest, I don’t think I’d ever seen it.

The film is a little surprising, actually.  Though it has obviously some rather outlandish aspects: mutant homeless people with glowing eyes and dripping fangs, it’s actually a relatively earnest thriller, though on the low-budget side.  And most interestingly it is well-cast and features several young actors who would go on to at least minor prominence, including John Heard, John Goodman, Jay Thomas, Sam McMurray, and most entertainingly Daniel Stern.

Daniel Stern plays the hippie-ish manager of a low-rent soup kitchen, and he’s actually quite good, very vibrant and fun in this character.

The film has an interesting bent on homelessness, a topic that seemed to grow in prominence in the 1980’s.  Heard is a photographer who has befriended and photographed the homeless folks that live “underground”.  This is in New York City, downtown or SoHo it seems, reminding me of several other films that I have watched that reflect the pre-Giulliani New York.  It’s gritty and tough.  Well, it turns out that there has been nuclear waste stored under the city, and the homeless underground dwellers develop into cannibalistic monsters with big claw-like hands.

Really, the film is less gore and exploitation than you might think.  There is an earnest commitment to the narrative and the casting reflects in an inherent quality in the performances far beyond that of the average B-movie.  This is truly B-movie material, but not so badly concocted or produced.  In fact, really, the weakest aspect of the film is the special effects.  For a B-movie, it’s totally fine.  It’s goofy and funny and grotesque, but so far from real or scary that it somewhat undercuts the film’s othewise sincere nature.

It’s an odd one this film, in that sense.  But it might be an interesting double feature with Street Trash (1987), another film about mutant homeless people.  I also am considering my cultivated image of 1970’s to 1980’s New York City as another B-movie trope, location shooting, capturing the city in a snapshot of sorts, the real city in the background, the buildings, the perspectives.  In C.H.U.D., there are a number of establishing shots that contextualize the locations and I think that this was also part of the film’s commentary at the time, the rough and tumble of the city, the down and outs.  While not really a meaningful statement, the images and the story bring some of this to light.

The Innocents

The Innocents (1961) movie poster

(1961) dir. Jack Clayton
viewed: 10/26/08

An elegant and stylish adaptation of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw, The Innocents certainly has a well-earned reputation as on of the better “ghost story” films of the genre.  Shot in black-and-white by cinematographer Freddie Francis, the film uses the lush English country estate very effectively, with an eye toward nature and a narrative haunted or pregnant with meanings.

As in James’ story, there is a conflation of reality.  Are the children haunted and possessed by their late governess and valet?  Is the new governess really protecting them or is she the one whose repressed desires are projected out on the innocent children?  There is a heady mixture of sexual repression, desire, suggestions of child molestation, even incest, played out against a genuine point of fear and isolation.

Director Jack Clayton and cinematographer Francis use slow dissolves from scene to scene that give double exposures and contrasts of images sustained screen time.  The duality of images is also played out in reflections, Deborah Kerr’s reflected image in the window pane against that of the ghost of Quint, the valet.  The first glimpse of Flora, the girl, reflected in the water, the water in which the governess had drowned.  The visual play is elegant and sustained, contrasting with the more concrete images of the stately home and the lush gardens.

Additonally, images of eerie statuary evoke in contrast, unearthly, nearly demonic visions, uncovered around corners, hiding in shrubbery, looming in shadowy backgrounds.  And also interestingly, every time the Kerr touches the flowers, petals begin to fall.  Is she the corruptor?

Truly, as elegant and effective of a ghost story as you’ll find, rich visually, and thematically.  Truman Capote has a shared screen credit for the script, which takes James’ work, which is so full and yet so psychological, and visualizes it without losing the text’s sense of conflation, double-reading, and eerieness.

The Brood

The Brood (1979) movie poster

(1979) dir. David Cronenberg
viewed: 10/28/08

As I was watching The Brood, I had several moments of deja vu, but I don’t think that I’d actually seen it before.  Some parts seemed more familiar than others.  It’s early Cronenberg, when he was still obsessed with the body and disease and grotesqueries.  Not necessarily his best, but still quite good.

With his more recent success with more naturalistic crime dramas like A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007), Cronenberg has moved away from the gruesome science fiction horror of his early work.  While still quite violent and brutal, the narratives stay within the natural world, not one of perverse nightmares and fantasy.

The Brood is about psychosis and psychiatry.  Psychiatry that is more therapy than medication.  The embodiment of horrific abuse, repressed anger delved into and unleashed in an embodiment, a violent, vindictive embodiment.  The story is about a father, whose ex-wife is the super-disturbed patient in Oliver Reed’s isolated, radical treatment facility.  While the father fears his ex-wife, trying to protect their daughter, Reed’s treatments unleash a beast, an Id, if you will, not unlike Walter Pidgeon’s Id beast in Forbidden Planet (1956).  It’s just that what is released in The Brood is deformed midget children, dressed in brightly-colored snowsuits.

I mean, what inspired this vision of horror exactly?  Was Cronenberg taking his kids to school when he saw all the little ones dressed in these puffy, colorful outfits when he thought, “Jeez, wouldn’t it be scary if they were little vicious monsters under all that cuteness?”

It’s well-constructed, and the film develops to a powerful shock moment at the end of the film.  Cronenberg’s interest in the body and diseases played out a lot in his early films, Shivers (1975), Rabid (1977), even up through The Fly (1986).  It’s an interesting trope, particularly as the character Jan Hartog describes it (a great, hilarious cameo performance), about the lymphatic system and cancer, someone whose therapy has deformed and poisoned him.  It’s rich theoretical material, no doubt.  Perhaps more interesting to consider, than to actually have a visceral reaction to.

The Fury

 

The Fury (1978) movie poster

(1978) dir. Brian De Palma
viewed: 10/27/08

I’ve seen quite a few of Brian De Palma’s films over the years, but The Fury wasn’t one of them.  I queued it up as part of my Halloween horror-fest for this year, though it turns out to not be so much a horror film but probably something that dips into several genre.  It’s certainly not his best.

De Palma’s “best” are debateably Sisters (1973), Carrie (1976), and The Untouchables (1987).  Most recently of his films, I saw Scarface (1983).  The thing about De Palma is that he channels Hitchcock like a wind tunnel at times, perhaps achieving some of his high points in doing so.

This film, like Carrie, is about teenagers with psychic abilities.  Unlike Carrie, it’s far less psychological, far less perverse, far more of a big adventure film.  It stars Kirk Douglas, an aging leading man at the time, who is trying to find his psychic teenage son, who has been abducted by John Cassavetes and some secret government organization.  There are some action moments with Douglas running, jumping, and crashing cars.  And the psychic phenomena moments, in which De Palma uses some of the film’s most effective editing, are sporatic.  It’s a bit long, too.

What is cool is the location shooting in Chicago in 1978.  I’ve watched several films shot on location in New York in that era, which is revelatory in a historical and cultural way.  Chicago, too, is interesting to see, a time not so long ago, but yet still significantly different from today.  Would it be sad to say that this was my favorite thing about the movie?

Hopefully, my coming horror films will begin to fit the bill a little better.

Stuck

Stuck (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Stuart Gordon
viewed: 10/26/08

From director Stuart Gordon, proud cult filmmaker of such B-moive gems as Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986), comes a horror/thriller flick inspired by one of the most gruesome and inhumane real life events of recent years (and that is saying something).  It’s the story of an assistant in an elder care community (Mena Suvari), who after partying the night away and driving while dialing her cell phone, strikes a homeless man (Stephen Rea), so that he gets lodged in her windshield.  Then, rather than risk being caught and jeopardizing her promotion, leaves him “stuck” in the windshield in her garage, to die.

This is the first of my horror film romp up to Halloween.  I’d read that this film was actually a fairly decent social satire, which it is.  It’s also moderately humorous, quite gruesome, and rather scathing in a sense toward humanity’s lack of humanity.

“Inspired” by a real event, in which this actually did happen, the film plays out much of the actuality of the event, as the man survived the crash and begged for help, while the woman simply let him die.  If he had gotten medical help, he could have survived.  And the funny thing is that Gordon doesn’t play up Suvari’s character to be out-and-out evil.  Though she has hideous cornrows, she is a humane person in a job that requires caring.  And while she was on drugs at the time of the event, she is morally troubled.  But she sinks into a ruthlessness and inhumanity like a rapidly spiralling into mad, selfish psychosis, actually trying hard to kill Rea, who actually tries really hard to escape when he cannot get help.

It’s not high art, not even sparkling in its social critiques or humor, but it’s a pretty decent flick.  Rea’s character is a man just knocked to the streets who can’t get human kindness from his landlord, from the career center where he goes to try to get a job, from the police that won’t let him sleep on a park bench.  The only one who shows humanity is another homeless man.  Rea looks beaten down at the best of times, but his own humanity is ultimately what drives the film.  Kinda weird, I guess, getting a sense of such stuff from a movie about a guy stuck in a car windshield.

Underground

 

Underground (1995) movie poster

(1995) dir. Emir Kusturica
viewed: 10/24/08

Epic, grand, funny, and rich, Underground is a fascinating and highly entertaining perspective on the experience and history of Yugoslavia going into and out of WWII, via Communist Party resistance, and into the Cold War and after.  From the opening sequence, the character of this rollicking, almost Surrealist comic film plays a portrait of WWII quite unlike any other that I can think of.

The opening sequence, set in 1941, is a pair of drunken roustabouts, celebrating the character Blacky’s having joined the Communist Party, firing pistols randomly, and trailed by a nearly ever-present brass band, playing rousing Eastern European-themed marches, dances, and Polka-like tunes.  I wish I had better words to describe it, but the nearly incessant brass band follows the characters throughout the movie, playing in all kinds of sequences from parties to funeral marches, also representing several running jokes.  They add to the bouncy, comic atmosphere, one mixing only aspects of realism, or following a true history with a story that is highly metaphorical.

Blacky is a philaderer, a macho, womanizing electrician, a plebian, brought in by his best friend, Marko, into the resistance against the Nazis, building and operating a literally underground system of goods, a black market.  But beyond that, Marko induces an entire community to operate in this underground cavern, building weapons for the resistance.

Marko is a resistance leader, also a wildman, but an intellectual, an organizer, the one who stays above ground, relaying between the two worlds.

Natalija is an actress, the desire of both Blacky and Marko, a flitting, amoral character, sleeping with the Germans, with the resistance leaders, pretty much whoever seems to be in power.  These three characters seem to represent different ideologies and actions throughout the history of the War and the Cold War.  Not so much Yugoslavia’s split personality, but the homogenity of the raging chaos and national spirit of the country besieged and under the control of the Communists.

Marko never tells the underground community that the War ended, keeping them “underground” while he climbed the ladder of the establishment, becoming Tito’s right hand man, evolving into the face of the Cold War life.  Kusturica utilizes some Zelig (1983) or Forrest Gump (1994)-like techniques of editing Marko into historical footage as he rides the morally bankrupt establishment to his height in comfort and recognition.

The metaphor of the people living “underground” during the Cold War is obvious.  Marko evolves from a philandering wild man into a passionate nationalist and militant.  The ending, culminating near the Bosnian War, breaks up a bit, I would say, but the whole film has such an epic and fantastical wit and vision, it’s also quite poignant.

The comedy and the music and the characters, the social and historical critique…it’s rich, fun material.  An excellent film.  I am glad that it somehow stayed on my radar all these years and I am glad that I finally saw it.

Sukiyaki Western Django

Sukiyaki Wester Django (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Takashi Miike
viewed: 10/23/08 at The Bridge Theater, SF, CA

Part homage, part mashup, part gooffest, Sukiyaki Western Django is cult director Takashi Miike’s bizarro take on the Spaghetti Western, mixed with several parts Samurai flick and a lot of just out-and-out weirdness.  The weirdness is really more in the overall aesthetic and approach.  It’s intentionally bad.  It is intentionally bad, right?  The acting is, most certainly.

The film is in English, though is stars a largely Japanese cast who have varying degrees of pronunciation.  I’ve read that this is perhaps a reference to the dubbing of the Spaghetti Westerns or the weirdness of their dialogue recording.  The acting varies greatly in degrees of over-the-top hammy-ness.  This is broadened and exemplified by the unfortunate choice of having Quentin Tarantino show up in the film.  He is perhaps the worst actor out there, but again, he seems to be a bit intentionally bad, too.  He can’t possibly be serious, I suppose.

The opening sequence, which turns out to be a flashback as well as a metaphor, is on a strange faux-Western set, clearly different from the location shooting of the rest of the film.  It draws attention to the film’s artifice, sets a tone of camp, and lets you know that you are in for a rough hour and forty minutes or so, if you were expecting quality and not just spectacle.

Somehow, it seemed not just novel but kind of interesting, having one of the most prolific and bizarre cult/exploitation filmmakers of today marrying up East-West in the Spaghetti West.  But the thing that the film suffers from is its lack of seriousness.  The Westerns, like Django (1966) and those of Sergio Leone, those films had a lot of humor and irony and spectacle, but there was more at play in the films than genre play.  They weren’t just goof-fests.

Well, it doesn’t matter why I think this film failed, but I didn’t care for it.  There are a handful of scenes that look cool and can be plastered together in a trailer to whet one’s appetite, but it’s largely tedious junk.

Someone please stop Quentin Tarantino from acting.

The Incredible Hulk

The Incredible Hulk (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Louis Leterrier
viewed: 10/22/08

Marvel Comics, which now produces its own films, has hit the cinema hard this year, harder every year, it seems.  But in bringing back The Incredible Hulk, rather than working from its 2003 flop, The Hulk, directed by Ang Lee, they kind of did a re-boot.  Now it’s Edward Norton as the beleaguered Bruce Banner, running from the gung-ho evil military who just wants to make unholy weapons out of science gone mad.

The Hulk was never a big fave of mine in comic books, but I did recall liking a couple of stories, when he fought the Abomination, the Wendigo, and Wolverine.  The Hulk himself is kind of dull, “Hulk Smash” is his catch-phrase after all, not exactly like he’s quoting Nietzsche.  And for this film they got it, rather than fighting Nick Nolte in some spiritual ephemera as in Lee’s The Hulk, we have a big, brawling beastie for the Hulk to battle.  Lots of things go boom.  Lots of things get smashed.

The problem is the FX.  It is slick and all, with dramatic stances and camera movement, but he looks utterly unreal.  I know how stupid that sounds.  He’s the “incredible” Hulk.  The problem is that the FX need to make him credible.  It actually made me think a bit of Peter Jackson’s King Kong (2005), in which an incredible creature crushes New York (poor New York, everybody wants to smash it up), and then has a tender moment with a woman on a cliffside.  Jackson’s movie was pretty lame, but Kong was credible.  The Hulk is a cartoon.  And he jumps around and leaps and smashes like a video game, similar to the visual issues I had with Spider-Man (2002).  The animation FX are slick but not credible as reality enough to really “believe”.

Does that really matter?  Not necessarily.  But if you find yourself thinking it while all the dramatic moments happen, then you’re obviously not involved with the film on a level that you perhaps should be.

But, all said and done, it’s not too bad a film.  It’s okay.  I still give my credit to Iron Man (2008), the best of this year’s lot of Marvel comic action films.  They are going to keep ’em coming, smashing up the cinema, crashing on the box office, until the cash cows die.

Jellyfish

Jellyfish (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Shira Geffen, Etgar Keret
viewed: 10/20/08

Jellyfish is an Israeli film, written and do-directed by Shira Geffen and co-directed by her husband, writer Etgar Keret.  It’s not something that I would normally have necessarily stumbled on, but earlier this year I did stumble upon Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), directed by Goran Dukic, which was adapted from a short story by Keret, and it sparked a brief exploration of the writer.  I read his latest collection of stories, The Girl on the Fridge: Stories, but I didn’t really like it.  For some reason, and maybe it’s just one of those situations in which once you notice something, like Keret, you suddenly see him everywhere.  And so I’ve been curious about Jellyfish.

It’s an off-beat film, with elements of magical realism, and an occasional drift into the surreal, but mostly it’s a film about three of four young women in Tel Aviv, whose lives intersect more than once, though on fairly superficial ways.  Each is in their own zone of reality.  One is a waitress who discovers a lost child on a beach, another is a just-married woman who is dissatisfied constantly, and the third is a Filipina woman who speaks no Hebrew and is working as a caregiver to the elderly and unkind.

I liked the film well-enough.  The stories each have their elements and for a while, it’s a little hard to see where it’s all going.  With a running time of 78 minutes or something, its brevity plays well with its light touch on some more serious elements, death, love, loneliness.

What the proverbial Jellyfish is, even though one does show up on the beach, I can’t really say that I get what that symbolizes or means, which in the case of this film, is a little annoying.  But this film’s light-weight magic might work more for others better than it did for me.

Standard Operating Procedure

Standard Operating Procedure (2008) movie poster

(2008) dir. Errol Morris
viewed: 10/19/08

It surprised me when director Errol Morris’ latest film, Standard Operation Procedure, about the scandal at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, came and went from theaters in a blink of an eye, even here in San Francisco.  I mean, Errol Morris is one of the most notable documentary filmmakers in America in the past 25 years, with films like: The Thin Blue Line (1988), Mr. Death: The Rise and Fall of Fred A. Leuchter, Jr. (1999), and his previous film, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003), and addressing one of the most shocking images to rise out of the Iraq War, an ongoing and relevant issue still.

I still don’t know why it came and went the way it did, but now it’s available on DVD.  I am less impressed by it than I’d hoped to have been.  It’s not his greatest film but certainly not bad at all either.  I do have to say that I think that Alex Gibney’s Taxi to the Dark Side (2007) tracked some similar territory, and in many ways was much more damning and wider-reaching.  But Morris’ film isn’t a pure contemplation on the definition of torture or the use of torture or even polemic to point fingers at those in the government and military whose culpability has never been scrutinized the way that it should.

Standard Operating Procedure is a question of the potency and representation and meaning of the photos, of photos, of evidence, and what the absence of that evidence fails to demonstrate.  In a sense, it’s a fairly contemplative and theoretical precept, that a photograph only shows what it shows, that it does not include its context, the world around it, the non-captured pieces outside of the frame (or even cropped out of it).  It’s the type of analysis that is very metacritical and quite deep.

And it’s apt here.  For this whole crisis was brought to light via photographic images.  The outrage and horror at the torture and nightmare of what was happening there is crystallized in some of the shocking images of naked prisoners piled atop one another, posed with smiling American captors, humiliated, and perhaps most strikingly, posed atop a box, hooded, and “wired” in fear of death.  The images shocked the world, I think it’s safe to say.

And the people who were caught on film with the exploited detainees are the ones against whom these images were used to prosecute.  These low-ranking military staff become the victims of their own photographic documentation.

There is so much going on here, it’s hard to unpack in a short entry.  No one ranking about Staff Seargant was ever imprisoned for these events.  What happened in these photos was well-known throughout the prison, the photos were widely distributed, but only the ones who were foolish enough to appear in the photos were punished.  So, in other words, these things are horrific, but within the context of everything that was happening (actual physical torture leading to death, for instance), this was a situation of those who got “caught” getting punished when far more, far worse, and far further up the military and government foodchain were not only culpable but responsible for worse things, things that didn’t make it into the camera.

One of the things about the film is that the analysis of the idea of the image and the things outside of the image could have been much more potent.  The idea is there, but it’s much riper in the directorial commentary that I listened to briefly once the film was over.  The film is focused on the individuals involved and their specific images that became iconic representations of abuse, telling their stories, contextualizing them, young people put into a situation where this behavior was possible, excused, and allowed.  That the image of them is also bigger than that in the images.

The image of the abuses there is far larger.  But I think the most potent critics and thinkers who could add to film’s concepts are also not necessarily in front of Morris’ camera, including Morris himself.  Morris has a military forensic technician who deconstructed the mass of photographic data and helped the prosecution devise what constituted criminal action versus “standard operating procedure”, but his analysis is colored too.

This film could have been much more.  There is much more to it, to the issues, to the ideas, to the story.  Morris digs, but like his own metaphor of the context and the missing information that exists outside of the frame can clearly be applied here.  So much more exists in this concept and in this material.  That said, there is a lot here, too, in understanding the history of the images, the narrative of their construction, from the people who made them, who were punished for them, while the rest of the situations kept moving and moving, outside of the digital camera’s ever-more ubiquitous eye.