A Nightmare on Elm Street

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) movie poster

(1984) dir. Wes Craven
viewed: 04/28/10

I first saw A Nightmare on Elm Street back in high school on what was probably its initial release, and I had seen, most likely through cable or video releases some of the 7 or so sequels the film begat.  I recall being somewhat impressed by the film on first viewing, but it had been years since I’d seen it.  But since the new “re-make” of the film is due in theaters tomorrow and I plan to see it, I figured it was a good time to revisit Wes Craven’s most interesting creation.

And I think that the best way to see A Nightmare on Elm Street is to see it the way that it was when it came out.  The story is a mystery, explained only partially toward the end of the film.  It begins with the construction of the infamous knifed glove of its star killer.  And it opens with a nightmare, with the shadowy figure, gruesomely disfigured, bearing that iconic glove, chasing a girl through a boiler room.  It’s a dream.  It has dream logic.  It doesn’t have to make sense.

And the whole fact that these kids, as they start to realize that they are all dreaming nightmares of this increasingly creative and strange killer, are most at risk while asleep.   And as their surreal and brutal deaths gain momentum, and the backstory and naming of Freddy Krueger are unveiled, the repression of the past, a dark and murderous past, in which not only the villain but the middle class parents are also implicated, the whole thing takes on a sense of Freudian logic.  It’s not just “scary” and visually creative, but resonates a sense of darkness in the teenage world from which the core victims are selected.  It’s truly a “teen” film and the parents, while not as scary, are criminals, betrayers, and alcoholics too.

And actually, the figure of Freddy Krueger in this film, with its shockingly gruesome self-disfigurements, ability to morph shape and being (stretching arms across an alley, putting his tongue through a telephone, becoming the convertible automobile at the end), bears a comic and yet uncampy mien.  And it’s not just that teenagers are creatively sliced and diced.  There are moments of true dream logic (running up the stairs as they turn to mush) that have greater effect than a multitude of cheap scares.

It’s really quite a fine film.  And Heather Langenkamp, the heroine, is strong in her role as the survivalist girl.  And of course you’ve got a very young Johnny Depp in his first film, too.  The worst thing is the soundtrack, which is high-1980’s synth-rock and sounds as dated as anything in the film.

Craven does a fine job situating the story in the middle America suburbia, while capturing the elements of the teen film that hearken back through to the 1950’s, painting the simple characters with deft strokes and a classic 20th century sensibility.

It has been a long time since I’ve seen what I used to consider my favorites of Craven’s catalog, which would include Swamp Thing (1982), Deadly Friend (1986), and The People Under the Stairs (1991), though of those, none were quite up to the creative vision of Elm Street, nor did any of them beget so many sequels or a franchise star like Freddy Krueger.  It’s actually muct to this film’s detriment that the sequels and the figure of Krueger stand so much further out in mind than the film itself.

And as for the sequel, which I will see tomorrow, though it has a bit of “star power” in the casting of Jackie Earle Haley as the “new” Freddy Krueger, my doubts are redoubled in seeing this 1984 original, simply because it was original, surprising, creative, and ultimately a mystery.  In a film in which the mystery doesn’t exist, the character and story precede itself, well, we’ll just have to see how cynical a production it is and give Craven his due for his one great film.

Bigger Than Life

Bigger Than Life (1956) movie poster

(1956) dir. Nicholas Ray
viewed: 04/26/10

Bigger Than Life is a film that I’ve been wanting to see for several years.  While living in England briefly in the mid-1990’s, I chanced to see Ray’s first feature film, They Live By Night (1949) and while trying to find reading about film studies at the local library, stumbled upon a book about Ray, biographical but also offering a critical overview of his films.  And of the films on which the book focused, the one that sounded particularly interesting was Bigger Than Life, but oddly enough, that film hadn’t been available in the United States on video or DVD.  Until now.

Critereon released Bigger Than Life earlier this month and so I queued it up and my long wait was over.

The film stars James Mason, who also acted as producer, as a small town schoolteacher who is suffering from a rare disorder which causes him great physical pain and eventually leads to his physical collapse.  His illness comes as a death sentence, except he has the one chance: to try the experimental new drug cortisone, which could save his life.  He agrees immediately and starts to bounce back.

However, Mason begins abusing the drug, which gives him turns of mania and psychosis.  He becomes “bigger than life”, becoming paranoid, superior, and dissatisfied with the life and family he has.  Ultimately, his mania reaches a biblical extreme in which he decides that he must sacrifice his son to keep him pure and save him from failure.

While the film falls mostly into the family melodrama genre, it’s very much about the banality of that world and ultimately the fragility of it as well.  Mason, before he becomes sick, has secretly taken a second job at a cab company to supplement the family income.  Maintaining the small family home, maintaining the small social life, is more than he can handle.  The family home is the site of much of the drama, and Ray uses the interiors to great effect at different points through the film.

It’s a tremendous and dark film, and the film isn’t specifically about the concerns of cortisone as a treatment or even Mason’s abuse of the drug, but rather about the pandora’s box of stifled psychosis behind the facade of soft-spoken, homey America.  Many critics consider it to be Ray’s finest work, and it’s easy to see why.  Mason’s world, initially genial and soft as an American sit-com of the time, turns into a ranging disaster area.  His house, his home, his castle, humble and banal, is too small for him once he feels his oats, playing catch football inside the house with his son, running ragged and overenergized, smashing things.

And his son and his wife are not up to snuff either.  His symbolically deflated football trophy, which he takes from the mantle, reinflates and hands to his son, furthers this notion of the striving dreams of the man, who now ceding them from himself and passing them to his child, now demands results, results he never achieved.  Their house, decorated with travel posters from around the world, a world they’ve never afforded to venture into, also shows the trap that their lives have come to stand for to him.

And when the moment of traumatic violence comes, it smashes through the railing of the stairs, breaking literally, the house that has held them as the whole world comes tumbling down.  It’s not surprising that this dark-natured film played poorly in the 1950’s when it was released.  It’s a nightmare of 1950’s American life, the nuclear family, the fragility of the structures and the repressed hopes and dreams and what they can fester into.

An excellent, excellent film, well worth seeing again.  And Nicholas Ray himself, his films are well-worth re-investigating.  A major figure in American cinema.

I Sell the Dead

(2008) dir. Glenn McQuaid
viewed: 04/26/10

I Sell the Dead was one of those rare rentals that was inspired by a pre-movie forced trailer on another DVD.  I don’t know, it kind of spoke to me.  The title, reminiscent of I Bury the Living (1958), a personal cult favorite, and aparently something akin to Cemetary Man (1994), that a black comedy with gallows humor (and living corpses), plus the potential charm of star Dominic Monaghan, it looked like it could be kind of fun.

Actually, in renting DVD’s from Netflix (or whereever), I’ve been getting more and more annoyed at discs that play more than four trailers without allowing you to go to the DVD menu.  You have to watch the trailers, assumingly because you are a captive audience.  But it’s annoying.  Really annoying.  And yet, here I was renting a film that I only heard of in that format.  Maybe that is a lesson learned here.

Actually, the film has its charm.  It’s moderately fun, driven largely by the actors, Monaghan and co-star Larry Fessenden are a fun pair, shown in the flashbacks as Monaghan recounts from his death row cell to a priest the exploits of the two graverobbers and the varying adventures with the dead and undead.  Ron Perlman, who seems the be one of the most ubiquitous bad genre movie actors, is the priest, with an Irish accent of sorts.

The film is set in a vague time period, perhaps the same as in Robert Wise’s The Body Snatcher (1945), but is filmed on a low budget, low enough to make you yearn for the Hammer Horror films or other films that can afford a real costume department and set designers.  And oddly, while that shouldn’t necessarily work against the film, either that of just the direction keeps the film from rising above or even to its potential.  But it doesn’t.

Mildly amusing, not without some charms, particularly in some of the cast, the film is just not worth the effort.

Troll 2

Troll 2 (1990) movie poster

(1990) dir. Claudio Fragosso
viewed: 04/22/10

In reading about the documentary that was recently made about the film Troll 2, a documentary titled Best Worst Movie (2009), I realized that this oddity of a film was something that I needed to see.  I think that the title of documentary captures in utter concision, the reason to see it.

This is the “best bad movie” that I’ve seen in a long time.  I do spend a moderate amount of time with poor genre films, watching Uwe Boll’s movies, looking for the bad movie that makes itself great in its utter badness.  And here we go.  It’s as bad and as fun as movies like this get.

To rent it from Netflix, it comes as a b-side to the “original” Troll (1986) movie, which I started to watch when the DVD went awry.  It didn’t matter, as I’d read.  The film has nothing to do with Troll.  It was made not as a sequel, but of a film of its own merits by an Italian director and film crew in Utah.  And as notably noted, there is not a troll in the film.  Whereas the “original” featured a strange cast including Sonny Bono, Michael Moriarty, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus among others, this film features a bunch of people who would be laughed off the set of real-life Waiting For Guffman (1996) small town production.

A family takes a vacation, swapping their home with a family in Niblog (“goblin” backwards), only to find that the town is inhabited by rabidly vegetarian goblins who want to turn people into plants by feeding them green goo, and then eating them.  The family is trailed by the teenage daughter’s boyfriend and his homoerotic crew in an RV, supposedly to give some more bodies for the pyre.

The acting is hilarious, apparently a plethora of youtube memes have emanated from sound bytes.  The costuming is ludicrous.  The goblins are cheaply and poorly produced masks on the heads of little people.  Their clothing?  Burlap sacks.

There is so much ill-logic, green goo, and general inanity, it’s like a 1989 version of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959).  And just a sampling of the insanity of the story-line?  The trolls are defeated partially by eating a double-decker b0logna sandwich (it annoys their vegetarian natures.)

The best worst acting is done by Deborah Reed as the leader of the human-formed trolls, her big eyes, silly make-up, and looming goofy over-acting is something to be seen indeed.  Other actors deliver hilariously bad dialogue in comical flatness, while she practically stands on tip-toe to deliver her sweet archness.  She’s straight out of a bad witch from a kids play performance at the local library.  She’s tremendously bad.  Deliciously bad.

And so is the film.  It’s deliciously bad.  And in looking for a film like that, so bad it’s fun, this film has got a lot going for it.  I look forward to seeing Best Worst Movie, which as I understand, is directed by the now adult version of the young boy, tormented by visions of his dead grandfathers’ horror stories of trolls, who is driven to urinate on the food to keep the family from eating it, and looks to be a pretty lightweight, charmer of a documentary.

But Troll 2 is a sight to see.


Kick-Ass (2010) movie poster

(2010) dir. Matthew Vaughn
viewed: 04/18/10 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

How much ass does Kick-Ass kick?  Or should I say “How much ass would Kick-Ass kick if Kick-Ass did ass kick?”

I’d read extremely praiseful reviews of Kick-Ass both in the local paper and on the English Guardian website, raves really.  And from a couple of friends who’d seen the film before, their Twitter posts tell again, of Kick-Ass kicking ass (You know, it’s sort of a built-in response to a film with that title if you enjoyed it.)  And so, I found myself with perhaps raised expectations.

The film is a play on the superhero mythos and is itself adapted from a comic book.  The idea is that a lanky geeky guy, a comic book nerd, decides that he can be a superhero even without super powers.  He gets himself a funny costume and goes out to fight crime.  Initially, he gets severely injured for his efforts, getting steel plates and dulled nerves after getting knifed and then hit by a car.  But he doesn’t give up and eventually makes it big on the internet when his first successful rescue works out and gets filmed.

Kick-Ass is the first of the superheroes to emerge in the film, inspiring others to start the same as well.  Only, Kick-Ass really has more spirit than skills and when he meets the real deal, namely Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, and real villains, he finds out that his version of superheroing isn’t a fragment of theirs.  They actually DO kick ass.  And very violently.

The best thing about the film, hands down, is Hit-Girl, played by 12 year old Chloë Grace Moretz, cursing like a sailor, eviscerating like a ninja, and with purple wig and mask, is a very near iconic character cut onscreen.  She has been trained by her father, Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage), to be a vengeful firestorm, set on executing the entire criminal empire that ruined him.   Moretz, with her supple lips turning to smiles or sneers, is a stand-out.  And Nicolas Cage, offering another very amusing comic role as her weapons and revenge-obsessed father, and full of strong fatherly love (even as he shoots her in her body armor to teach her how to take a bullet), shines here too, speaking in a very funny Adam West Batman intonation and geekily snickering to himself.

It’s not just that Big Daddy and Hit-Girl kick ass, but they are a much more amusing pair of characters at the heart of it.  But they do kick ass.  And kill a whole lot of people.

The film is in fact quite violent and while the story is about standing up against crime and not letting criminals run roughshod over everyone, they are meting out vigilante violence in copious quantities.  While the film is also a “teen” film, with girlfriend romance and buddies too, that part of the film seemed a bit less interesting.  Really, I would have perhaps more appreciated a film called Hit-Girl and Big Daddy in which Kick-Ass is the side character.

The film is comedic as well as violent, but most of it is not as funny as one might hope.  In all, I did enjoy the film, but I was still hoping for more.  Directed by Matthew Vaughn, whose 2004 film Layer Cake I enjoyed, Kick-Ass moves along solidly enough, and I know that there will be more people out there saying that indeed the film did “kick ass”.  To my mind, it kicked some ass.  Not all of it.

But the big charms of this film are Moretz and Cage.  And interestingly, I noted that Moretz played the Avril Lavigne-like cool girl character in Diary of a Wimpy Kid (2010).  She stood out a bit there, but here she is something unique and strange, hilarious, pubescent fantasy girl, who unlike the others, has the radical skills of a supernatural superhero.  And the ability to actually kick ass.

Ninja Assassin

Ninja Assassin (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. James McTeigue
viewed: 04/15/10


This movie is total holy unrelenting crap.  It’s amazing.  It’s amazingly entirely, unselfreflixively crap.  It’s hot shit, as in the type of hot shit that you wouldn’t want to accidentally step into.

Directed by James McTeigue, director of V for Vendetta (2005) and assistant hand on much of The Matrix series of films, this film is…, uh, this film is…,uh, what the fuck is this film actually?

It’s a ninja film, not an auspicious genre.  It’s a story of a ninja, raised in a facist ninja school in some remote mountainous region of Asia, in which children are abducted and trained, very brutally, to be stone-cold killers.  But in this case, a ninja-to-be, who thought he was stone cold, had his heartlight turned on by a fellow ninja-to-be girl, who tried to run away only to be killed for her effort.  And these ninjas are century-spanning, globe-trotting killers-for-hire for the cost of a pound of gold.  And this ninja befriends a young African-American worker who uncovers this secret.

And lots of people end up with decapitations and other slicings that chop of fingers, legs, arms, bodies, torsos, middle of bodies.  Digital blood is splattered across the screen in incredibly unfathomable (and unbelievable) forms.  It’s an orgy, but an orgy for whom?  Why take a potentially unsophisticated genre of (for no better generic) kung fu film and then make it as soppy as it ever was, as shallow as it ever was, and only heightend some of the visuals, albeit with extremely cheap-looking digital effects?  And who produced this pile of crap?  The Wachowski siblings among others?

What I don’t get is what part of new and intereresting and original is embedded in this piece of utter crap.  It stars Korean pop-star turned actor “Rain”, who isn’t bad himself and is cut like a motherfucking diamond, but he hasn’t got a fraction of the charm or charisma that could save this incredible piece of shit of a film.

There is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle that I particularly despise who panned this film (rightly so), but since I despise him so much, when I read some more positive reviews (somewhere) I thought that perhaps this wasn’t half as bad as suggested.  It’s worse.  It’s only good in the fully ironic sense of a movie that has no sense of its own irony in its utter and wanton shittiness.  There are worse films.  But who the fuck put any kind of budget behind this crap?  Who the fuck thought this movie was a good idea?  I felt myself yearning for Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003) for chrissakes, for  Kill Bill: Vol. 1!

Christ almighty.  I am sure that there are some who will masturbate to this crap.  God help us all.

Porco Rosso

Porco Rosso (1992) movie poster

(1992) dir. Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 04/16/10

Happenstances being what they are, I’d never gotten around to seeing Porco Rosso, the 1992 film by one of my favorite filmmakers, Hayao Miyazaki, the only of his feature films that I’d never seen before.  And credit is definitely due to Pixar and John Lasseter there who have helped get the Disney corporation to import and dub these films for feature releases and DVD distribution.  I recall at one point toying with renting this film from a Japantown video store to watch untranslated just to see it.

I pooled the kids for this one.  We’re all quite into Miyazaki films.  We all enjoyed his most recent (and hopefully not his last directorial feature) Ponyo (2008).  It’s funny, but within 15 years or so, maybe longer, Miyazaki has gone from an obscure figure in American culturual knowledge to a much more known and recognized filmmaker, appreciated by many many more people than I would have ever hoped for at any time.  Again, I think this has a lot to the broad distribution and quality voice-acting hired to dub these films for the American market.

Porco Rosso is set in a typically Miyazaki world, a place somewhere between WWI and WWII but one which is in stark contrast to purified reality.  Technologies are as magical and pseudo-technological, retro, but retro in a way that nothing ever really existed.  And the world is a largely European fantasy of the gorgeous Mediterranean yet not by any means utterly particular to reality, though this film does spend some time in Milan (how accurately depicted, I have no clue).

But it’s a quasi-fantasy, a mixture of retro-and-just-never-was.  Porco Rosso, “the crimson pig”, was a bi-plane fighter in (probably) WWI for Italy, but when after a crazy dogfight in which he lost his battalion, he survived, suffering a “curse” or some other twist of fate, turning from striking handsome man into a pig.  And he takes his pig presentation as an excuse of sorts for his other types of piggishness, his selfishness, his wanton lifestyle, his lack of integrity.  He’s a bounty hunter, rescuing treasures and children from a myriad of marauding pirates.  But for money, supposedly looking out only for himself.

The opening of the film is one of its best sequences.  A group of children are abducted from a ship along with the ship’s treasure.  The gaggle of little girls are more than the pirates can handle and run amok on their plane, giving them a hard time about not being able to get Porco Rosso.  Porco Rosso zooms in for a dramatic rescue.  The bi-plane-style dogfights are exciting and lovingly rendered.  Miyazaki has a particular love of flying machines and features a broad spectrum of strange aircraft in almost all of his films.  And this seems to be the focal point of the aesthetic and setting of Porco Rosso.

But interestingly, it’s also a bit of a tip of the hat to films like Casablanca (1942), with its restaurant/bar and its singing hostess, the beautiful Jina, who has a pseudo-love relationship with Porco, the thrice widowed would-be bride of many a aeronaut shot down.  And there is the semi-villainous American (eventual movie star) as well.

But despite the guns and bullets, nobody really gets killed.  Nobody really gets shot.  And though Porco and the American end up in a battle and a fairly brutal fist fight, this film has less aligned with Miyazaki’s more serious and more socially critical works like Princess Mononoke (1997) or Nausicaä of the Valley of the Winds (1984).  It’s adventure but quite light-hearted, quite fun.  And also, most notably, less exemplary of his fanatsy elements and whimsical character designs of strange elements.  Rather it’s a relatively human world in which Porco is the only real fantasy figure.

The kids liked it.  Perhaps my kids liked it the most.  The girls from upstairs were down for it and seemed to like parts of it.  Felix had a friend over from school for a sleep-over and while he eventually seemed to get into it, it was clearly not his first kind of choice for a movie night thing.  Hey, Miyazaki is not going to be for everybody, but for those who are open to or just plain into his wonderful storytelling, imagination, design, and artistry, well, there is no comparison.  There is no one like him that I’ve seen.  We can only hope he keeps making films as long as he wants to.

Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037

Note by Note: The Making of Steinway L1037 (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Ben Niles
viewed: 04/12/10

A documentary about the making of a piano.  Literally.  But me, like perhaps not a whole lot of others, found this intriguing enough to queue up in my Netflix queue back three years ago when it had its brief theatrical run in San Francisco and maintained it there until it finally became availble on DVD.  That, among other things, is what sets me apart from other people writing about movies.

Actually, the film is quite well-produced, following actually the year-long production of a concert grand piano at Steinway and Sons in New York.  The L1037 is the actual number ID of the particular piano being followed throughout the process, and while that doesn’t make for the catchiest name in a documentary, it’s still apt.  According to the many people interviewed, from musicians to craftspeople, each piano is unique, has its own character and personality, especially those made by Steinway.

At Steinway, the pianos are all made and tuned, entirely by hand.  Craftspeople, with amazing speciality work from the earliest stages through the most intricate touches, working by feel and by ear, not by machine.  In fact, the most powerful and moving aspect of the film is the work of the craftspeople, the pride they take in their work, their longevity with the company.  These are people from all over the world, from Eastern Europe, the Phillipines, and just right down the street in Queens where the factory has been.  The process of building a piano has not significantly changed in 100 years.

But it is a dying thing.  Once pianos were a more common requirement for a household and many piano companies existed to help provide them.  Now, not many are left, and according to the film, Steinway & Sons is the last in which the entire process is done by handcraftsmanship.  It’s truly fascinating to look into this factory in which the people work with such dilligent and artful skill, perhaps an image of the world closer to the pre-industrial revolution, in which skills were built over years, working with one’s own hands.  And the people all seem very vested and proud of their work.

There are interviews with workers at each phase of the process, but also with pianists (inlucding Hélène Grimaud, Harry Connick, Jr., Hank Jones, and Pierre-Laurent Aimard, among others) who use Steinway pianos in their performances, showing them selecting each instrument with finicky deliberation.  While the film could come off as some very praiseful ode to the Steinway company, not just for their wonderful pianos, but for their traditional and human approach to production, the film tries to focus on the process and not as much on the “praise”, but it’s not meant to be controvertial, rather insightful.

I found myself thinking about how I maybe should sign up for piano lessons.  The piano has long been my favorite instrument, particularly in jazz, but I really had no idea the complexity of the instrument.  The artisans are all very specified in their step in the year-long process, and yet, the details and the infintessimal complexity of the piano and why it works the way it does is also quite illuminating.  Fascinating.

Actually, the film’s greatest charm for me was seeing the workers at their processes, people who work as tuners or wood-workers, or all kinds of specialized roles in shaping the pianos, selecting the most prime timber, perfecting the well-noted imperfectability that is creating the best pianos, and seeing and hearing their great pride and investment in their work.  If only all jobs could be so rewarding.   If only this wasn’t a glimpse at a dying breed.  But it is indeed a very interesting film if you can delve into it, something worth hunting for and digging up.

Wall Street

Wall Street (1987) movie poster

(1987) dir. Oliver Stone
viewed: 04/11/10

I was trying to remember the last time I’d watched an Oliver Stone film and I’ve been coming up empty.  Since such an event pre-dates this Film Diary, that puts it back over 10 years ago, which makes me think that most likely it was his U Turn (1997), which I think I did go see in the theater.   And given to this ponderance, I came up with thinking “when was the last time an Oliver Stone film mattered?”

Well, back in the day, Oliver Stone had his crazy schtick tapped into the American cultural psyche.   Dating back to his days as purely a screenwriter, Stone first hit paydirt with the screenplay for Midnight Express (1978) and Scarface (1983).   This gave way to his greatest commercial success and cultural relevance with his 1986 Vietnam war film Platoon (1986), for which he won Oscars for Best Director and Best Picture.  Which he then followed up with Wall Street (1987).

He’d go on with his very personal selection of subject material to stay high in the cultural eye over the late 1980’s through the 1990’s with films like Born on the Fourth of July (1989), The Doors (1991), and JFK (1991), showing that his taste in subject matter, while certainly slanted, found grounding with the public.   And he also managed to make what I recalled thinking was a pretty hot mess of a film in Natural Born Killers (1994) from a script by the then suddenly red hot Quentin Tarantino (who completely disassociated himself from Stone’s film).

And while Stone has continued to turn his camera’s gaze to the White House, with a film about Nixon (1995) and one about George W. Bush, and even made a film so unambiguously titled as World Trade Center (2006), his films have seemed more like oddities than powerfully relevant stuff.  And when I’d seen that this summer he was tapping back into himself, that he was making a sequel to the 1987 film Wall Street, I found myself thinking how desperately grabbing at straws he must be now to find relevance for his work.

I don’t know that I’ve ever quite given Stone as much credit as he’s due.  I recall in the 1980’s that I’d been very averse to Platoon without ever having seen it.  I was just getting into film and War films were pretty low on my sphere of interest.  But I do recall finally seeing the film and quite begrudgingly realizing that it was very effecting (though I don’t know that I’ve seen it again since.)

But I never did see Wall Street.  Like the war film, a film about day traders, money markets, greed, and all things very 1980’s about it, just didn’t interest me at all.  And as the years went by and the film remained a cultural touchstone, I still had it out there as one of the films from the period that I never bothered having seen.  But then, what with this sequel due out, it seemed like as good a time as any to rectify that.

And here I was, on a rainy afternoon, feeling under the weather, watching this 1980’s artifact.  And artifact it is, from clothing to technology to music and style, even the New York City landscape dominated by the World Trade Center.  And Charlie Sheen, who outside of an Oliver Stone film has only worked in lightweight comedy, so it seems.

But indeed, it’s an excellent film, very effecting and effective, gaining its greatest strength from the character of Gordon Gekko, played by Michael Douglas, who rode this juicy role to a Best Actor win at the Academy Awards for that year.  Gekko, the greediest of the greedy, the soullessest of the soulless, the pure 1980’s evil Wall Street businessman, is rock solid, a classic Hollywood character.  And while it was hard for me to think of genre parallels from which this film extended, it feels like a classic American tale of youth seduced by money and evil, led astray amidst the insanity of the period.

It’s easy to forget that Stone is an effective filmmaker, not just a writer or cultural figure, because he has such an outsized and recognizable voice beneath the story.  He’s telling you the story the way he believes in it.  Whether it’s Vietnam, the White House, Wall Street, or Jim Morrison, we’re getting his version of belief, infused by truth, but not by any means objective.  And while there is power within this, it’s his power as a filmmaker that crafted these visions into such iconic and moving characters and images.

Sheen is the young wannabe rich kid, grown up in Queens in a working class family, who senses that the world of the 1980’s is all about pretence and presentation.  No one lives with their parents in Queens, even in they live in a tiny apartment in the Upper East Side.  “There’s no nobility in being poor.”  And a kid like this, whose passion, whose own American dream is about wealth, is easily seduced by the successful if completely morally bankrupt Gekko.  And though he’s given fatherly advice both from his own father, played by his own father Martin Sheen, and a hard-working though never-made-it-big trader played by Hal Holbrook, he’s given into “the dark side” of the force…money.

At the core, there is a very traditional tale, dressed in the America of 1987, and peppered with a dynamic role for Douglas and quite a strong and catchy script.  For Stone, to whose father he dedicates the film, the film is personal, but in a different way perhaps than his other films.  This film is about the way that greed and technology melded together to give over to a financial world no longer built on the hard work of both the Wall Street types and the blue collar workers, but one in which a Pandora’s box of potential evil and greed, getting-rich-quick, has lured an entire generation into a corrupt and corrupting version of the world of his father’s, who is represented by Halbrook and Sheen senior.

I was again surprised by how effective the movie was and by what so traditional Hollywood storytelling this whole was evoked.  And I feel like given due credit to Stone and Douglas and the whole of the production for really quite a strong film, not just something of 1980’s zeitgeist, something that transcends it.  And while obviously this world of greed and potential greed and technology’s role in changing the realities of the stock market have only multiplied exponentially since, I guess it’s easy to see how returning to this character and this milieu isn’t necessarily just some cynical grab back to a point of relevance, but something that potentially does have power and meaning.

Now that said, I’m not predicting anything positive for the sequel, 23 years later.  But it’s clear that Stone had at one time not just the pulse of American (or the world’s) interests in his own strange and very specific interpretation of things, but was also a very strong and effective filmmaker.

While I’ve made it clear that it seems that he perhaps hasn’t made a film of relevance in 15 years, I have to also admit that I haven’t seen most anything that he’s done in a long time.  And while I am duly impressed by Wall Street, I don’t know what direction it means to lead me in investigating Stone’s other films.  Knowing myself, I will doubtlessly see something of his, but I’m not quite sure just what at the moment.  But I do want to say, I’ve been less generous to Stone in my estimation over the years, and I have to state that when he got it, he got it.

The Fourth Kind

The Fourth Kind (2009) movie poster

(2009) dir. Olatunde Osunsanmi
viewed: 04//10/10

What you are about to read IS real about a movie that purports to be comprised of fact and fiction but which is really made up of varying levels of fiction.  Why does that matter?  From The Blair Witch Project (1999) through Paranormal Activity (2007), and certainly before, a small group of movies has made their efforts to make their movie look like it was real found footage, documentary stuff.  And back to Fargo (1996), and again probably far beyond that, there have been film’s that have teasingly stated that they had basis in fact while no facts really existed.   So, it’s normal, yes?

The Fourth Kind is a sci-fi film of low birth, starring the almost always terrible Milla Jovovich as a psychiatrist living in Nome, Alaska, where a number of her patients are having the same recurring nightmares about owls outside their windows and who, when under hypnosis are pushed to try to remember their “dreams”, go into hyper-panicked shock and die or kill people.  Jovovich’s own husband supposedly succumbed to something akin to this.

And for the film, which opens with Jovovich announcing herself as an actress playing the role of a real-life person, whose validity is supposedly backed-up with footage from the real events as they were filmed, we have another weird hybrid of a film.  While the film doesn’t try to pretend that the whole of itself is documentary (which is the more common style), it does lots of split-screen demonstrations of the actors playing against the grainy footage of the real people.

Now, maybe you’ll say that I should have known better, but I didn’t do my research prior but after the film, so I kept wondering to myself, “well, if the stuff is this compelling, why make a fictional re-enactment at all?  why not just make a documentary about the thing?”  Because, really, the point of the more obvious fictional Jovovich version of narrative is weak anyways and while it’s potentially compelling to compare shot for shot with video events of reality, it still begs the question of why would anyone do that?

Writer/director Olatunde Osunsanmi perhaps thought that this approach was novel enough to make the story seem even more valid, since the other “found footage” films are their own kind of tired cliche these days.  Even mockumentaries are a tired cliche, though more from the comedic side of the fence, rather than the horror side of the fence, so to speak.

The film is pretty atrocious.  The film’s only hope for “power” is its potential connection to verity, and when that fact is washed away, there is really not much left.  Maybe this is one of those cases where it would be better to not over-analyze films, not to question their natures, their verity, and to just innocently go into the experience just hoping for a good scare.

But for better or for worse, I’m not that film-goer.  And even if I didn’t bother validating the reality of the supposed “true story” until after the film, I was not in the least surprised to find that it was all made up haphazardly.  Perhaps this is one of those cases where truth could be at least stronger than fiction, if not stranger.  And if true.