Assault on Precinct 13

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) movie poster

(1976) director John Carpenter
viewed: 08/13/10

Assault on Precinct 13, director John Carpenter’s second feature film, is a taut, wily, and clever action film, far outreaching its low budget means to make a seriously solid flick.  Frankly, this was another of Carpenter’s films that I’d never seen and that had languished on my rental queue for many a year, like his first feature film, Dark Star (1974), which I had just seen earlier in the week.  While Dark Star‘s charms exude from its low-budget, low-fi character, Assault on Precinct 13 shows greater ambition and greater rewards.

A rough re-telling of Howard Hawks’ western Rio Bravo (1959), Carpenter transposes the Old West onto the rougher neighborhoods of 1970’s Los Angeles which is plagued by violent multicultural street gangs.  An old police station is being moved, and the action takes place on the last night of this outpost’s tenure, operating with a skeleton staff and with its telecommunications being shut off.  When a gang member is killed in retribution for the killing of a little girl, the gang members hunt the girl’s father to the station where he seeks help and protection from the police.  And the station is also a temporary holding pen for some violent prisoners who are on their way to a penitentiary.  A motley crew of a local police lieutenant, the prisoners, and the secretarial staff have to fight off the gang and try to make it though the night.

The cast, mostly obscure to unknown actors, is tremendously strong.  Austin Stoker plays the lieutenant, Darwin Joston is “Napoleon” Wilson, a convicted murderer, Tony Burton is Wells, another convict, and Laurie Zimmer plays the secretary.  They all turn in solid performances, and Carpenter gives them good dialogue and a lot to work with.  It’s really quite a surprisingly strong cast all around.

Something else additionally interesting is that Carpenter makes the gang members very specifically multicultural.  Maybe this is to try to use the milieu without addressing any of the racial strife or challenges of Los Angeles of the period, I don’t know.  But the gang has four leaders, a “Hispanic”, “Oriental”, “Black”, and “White” kingpins, as they are described in the credits.  And they bond through a blood-letting and mixing ceremony, symbolizing their commitment to one another.  Interestingly, they never have any dialogue themselves, so their motivations are left a little up in the air and undefined.

Perhaps the film’s most potent scene, and one of its most controversial, is when a young girl is shot to death in a random act of violence.  She’s holding a vanilla ice cream cone, looking very innocent, and the blood splatters her body.  It’s a sudden, surpising event, duly shocking.  Still potent today.

I have to say, this film only further whetted my apetite for revisiting Carpenter’s  films.   So, don’t be terribly surprised to see more of them written up here in the coming weeks and months.

I Don’t Know Jack

I Don’t Know Jack (2002) movie poster

(2002) director Chris Leavens
viewed: 08/12/10

Do you know Jack Nance?  I did not personally know Jack, but I remembered reading about his death and about this film when it came out several years ago.  Nance was an actor, most notable for his appearances in almost all of David Lynch’s films up until his death, most iconically as the lead in Lynch’s breakthrough film, Eraserhead (1976).  It’s Nance’s visage and wild hair that haunted many a record store, dorm room, or t-shirt in the 1980’s and beyond as a pure icon of cult film.

The main reason that it’s taken me so long to finally see this film is because, not long after it hit Netflix (I’ve been using the service for 8 years), it went into their “Saved” category, no longer an active, available rental.  And I waited, and I waited for it to come out of there.  I assumed that it had had a small print run of the DVD and perhaps the ones Netflix had had been damaged.  And so now they didn’t offer it for that reason.  But it stayed on my “Saved” column for the better part of 8 years, waiting for it to be re-released or something.

Well, oddly enough, on a totally different film and tangent, I found myself hunting on the Netflix alternative GreenCine for another film that I wanted to see, Joe Dante’s Piranha (1978), which I knew had just been re-released on DVD in promotion of the upcoming Alexandre Aja 3-D remake due in theaters shortly.  And yet, for some reason, Piranha remained in the “Saved” area.  Well, turns out, GreenCine has Piranha available, as well as I Don’t Know Jack, not to mention a whole slew of Russ Meyer films (also oddly missing from Netflix).  A friend had suggested GreenCine to me a few years back but at the time I couldn’t find anything so compelling about what they had to offer that Netflix did not, and really, it seemed that Netflix would only get more and better as they grew.  And it’s weird that it’s gotten me to this point, when Netflix, via streaming movies, is poised to really attempt to take over “film on demand” and take a bigger stake in the media universe than mailing DVD’s to you back-and-forth, that it’s now that I am finally pushed to sign up for GreenCine to get my hands on a couple of movies that I want to see.

That said, GreenCine has yet to prove itself to me.  Piranha and several other films that I covet are low on their availability ratings and I have no idea how soon I might actually get Piranha in the mail, despite it being the top of my queue.  And I have had a long and healthy relationship with Netflix, whose customer service has been largely quite strong.  So, … the experiment has begun.

Sorry for that rather long aside.

The film I Don’t Know Jack is a documentary about Nance, shot on video, not too high on the aesthetic value scale.  If it were a book, it would be an “oral history”, one told through the words of those who knew and loved him, back and forth between the varying interviewees, reminiscing about him.  The film does take a bit of a historical construct, telling his early life in Texas to his move to San Francisco and his eventual meeting with David Lynch.  Lynch is really the most notable of the interviewees, though Dennis Hopper appears as well.

Nance wasn’t a major figure in film, not a master actor, nor a particularly well-known person, particularly outside of the Lynch canon.  He was, though, it seems a kind and creative man who was well-liked by friends and colleagues, someone they respected and enjoyed.  He was also an alcoholic (he was taken to rehab by Hopper himself), who experienced personal tragedy (his second wife’s very dramatic suicide).   And then very tragically as well, he died from a subdural hematoma, sustained in the wee hours one morning after either a fall or a fight (his death is considered an unsolved homicide — but people aren’t sure exactly what happened).  After being injured, he went home, unaware of how severe his injury was, and died.

It’s a sad story about a somewhat sad life.  Nance is perhaps a fine print footnote in the grander names of cinema, not a major headline.  I Don’t Know Jack is a fairly rudimentary doc, nothing special in and of itself.  But for a story as small and obscure as Nance’s, it’s great that there is this collective snapshot, this telling of his story.  His appearance and eerie presence in Eraserhead, as well as other films, will continue to persist as an indelible, eternal cultural images.  It’s just that strange aspect of pop culture, media, and perhaps technology that this visual picture of the man will long hold in the greater cultural consciousness, but the story of the real man, at least for now, is an even smaller footnote, a currently hard to track down DVD.

Dark Star

Dark Star (1974) movie poster

(1974) director John Carpenter
viewed: 08/11/10

Before there was Halloween (1978), before there was Alien (1978), before there was Escape From New York (1981), The Thing (1982), Lifeforce (1985), The Return of the Living Dead (1985), Total Recall (1990), there was Dark Star.

Having recently been revisiting Wes Craven’s more plum films, I was reminding myself that I had a number of films by another (and arguably more interesting) 1970’s-1980’s American horror filmmaker languishing in my queue, the honorable John Carpenter.  I’d never seen Dark Star, which was Carpenter’s first feature film, adapted and expanded from his student film, a drolly comic, low-budget science fiction movie that falls into no single clean category.  It had been recommended to me by a friend many years ago after we’d watched Carpenter’s masterpiece, The Thing, and were reveling in the fine qualities of that film.  He’d said that he’d always had a soft spot for this odd space comedy.  But it took me this long to get around to seeing it.

Dark Star is the name of the spaceship that is home to four Earthlings (and one dead suspended-animation Earthling), who are roving the galaxy with the sole goal of blowing up “unstable” planets (the captain at one point says something like “Don’t give me any of that intelligent life crap, just give me something I can blow up”), making outer space more friendly to colonization.  They’re in a bit of a time warp, having been away from Earth for 20 years but having aged only 3.  Their ship is slowly falling apart but their distance from Earth (and budget cuts) haven’t allowed them to return for repairs.  Their captain was killed in a technical mishap and his body was put into a deep freezer, where via radio signals, he can still be reached (in one of the film’s stranger and more interesting sequences).

The film is odd.  Tonally, there are some rather thoughtful and intellectual moments, like with the dead captain who speaks from another existential plane, or another character who is withdrawing from the others to just sit and stare at the stars, or in the film’s ending in which that same character is absorbed by a rainbow comet to travel space for all eternity and the captain surfs into a planet’s atmosphere, burning up as a falling star.  And then there is more outright comedy, most obvious in the strange alien sequence in which the alien is a “beach ball with claws”.  It’s such a silly thing and its comedic battle with the character Pinback (who is played by co-screenwriter Dan O’Bannon) is one of the weirder elements of the film.  And, of course perhaps most-amusing, is the discussion of epistemology between the captain and the computerized bomb.  The captain tries to convince the bomb that it doesn’t really know if the outside world exists and should therefor not follow its instruction to explode.

The visuals are low-fi, yet effective.  I mean, you’ll never confuse this film with cutting edge visual effects, but of what they have they make interesting use.  It’s low-budget quality gives it an air of low-budget 1950’s sci-fi, even while what it channels is a more humorous slant on 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968).  And it’s that weird mixture of odd humor and the cerebral that give this film its unique flavor.

And in prefacing this entry, I mention not just Carpenter’s more notable films, but the notable films of writer/actor Dan O’Bannon.  I hadn’t been so familiar with O’Bannon myself, but he’s the best of the actors in the film, playing Sgt. Pinback, but as co-writer, he went on to write the screenplay for Ridley Scott’s classic Alien, apparently adapting aspects of this film (the beach ball alien) from comedy to horror, and in researching him, I found that he worked on a number of interesting, if not awesomely grand sci-fi/horror films.  Worth noting, so I noted it.

The People Under the Stairs

The People Under the Stairs (1991) movie poster

(1991) director Wes Craven
viewed: 08/07/10

I don’t know if “inspired” is the right word, but “influenced” and “curious” after having re-seen Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984), I decided that I felt up for re-visiting some of Craven’s other films that I’d remembered liking.  So, as part of that, I watched his 1986 teen Frankenstein robot movie Deadly Friend and then I queued up his oddball, chaotic, comedic 1991 film, The People Under the Stairs.

I’d recalled about The People Under the Stairs that it was less pure horror, a little more whacko, and quite funny.  I’d also recalled thinking that it bore some influence of something else but wasn’t entirely able to recall exactly what that influence was, meaning it felt a little different than your average Craven film.  And what’s interesting is that it is very different in almost every way from, say, Deadly FriendDeadly Friend was quite a hack-job of a production, poor quality, hackneyed storytelling, bad cinematography, just barely tolerable (and yet somehow still having something likable about it.)

The People Under the Stairs has quite striking cinematography.   In this case, shot by cinematographer Sandi Sissel and production design by Bryan Jones.  From our first shot of the crazy villains of the movie, a husband-wife/brother-sister pair of cuckoos, the camerawork is a clear leap up from Deadly Friend, hovering at waist-level, not quite showing the faces of the man and woman as it introduces them.

The film is very odd.  The story is about a young African American boy named “Fool” who along with a couple of good-natured thugs, breaks into a large spooky old house belonging to the slumlords of the neighborhood, hoping to find some gold coins rumored to be hidden there.  Little do they know that these slumlords, the brother and sister mentioned above, played with great aplomb by Everett McGill and Wendy Robie, are about a 1000 times more crazy than anyone would have believed.

Their house is wired to lock doors, turn on and off electricity, so it’s a trap, a prison.  They’ve been abducting children for years and when the boys misbehave, they “remove the bad bits” and lock them in the cellar, turning them into “the people under the stairs” who are semi-zombie like cannibals but essentially young adult males with varying degrees of prosthetic make-up.  They also have a “daughter”, a young abused and still quite innocent girl played by A.J. Langer, who lives as their captive.  And very quickly after getting into the house, the two adult thieves are killed and Fool is left to fend for himself against these nut-jobs.

The cast is up and down really good.  Fool is played by Brandon Quintin Adams and has a lot of charm and wit and likability, and there is something about Alice (Langer) in her white dress, haunted eyes, and long brown hair that really feels very sad and desperate.  Sean Roach plays “Roach”, an escaped “person from under the stairs” who is a bit of a mute-punk Robin Hood who lives in the walls of the house and befriends Alice and Fool.  And McGill and Robie are top-notch as the way-out kooky killers/psychopaths, particularly because they don’t fall into any one category of strange.  They’re all over the place, particularly when the sort of retro-looking McGill (they both have a sort of twisted 1950’s-ness to their appearances) dons a full-body bondage suit and mask and runs helter-skelter through the house with a shotgun, shooting up the walls, trying to kill them. 

The chaos and camerawork, I think, borrows a bit from Evil Dead II (1986), with its manic energy and strong character.  But additionally, Craven is perhaps influenced by David Lynch, in particular Twin Peaks the TV show, which is where he found McGill and Robie (also playing husband and wife).  Whereever he got his ideas from, the film is really quite fun, funny, and truly strange.  That’s not to say that it’s without its shortcomings.

The whole premise that McGill and Robie are slumlords of the ghetto, kicking out the poor African Americans and tearing down the buildings, throwing up new high-rises in their place is a fine enough plot point.  But Craven tries to take that to the next level of social commentary in that (along with all their other strange character traits, like pseudo-Christian beliefs, “Burn in hell!”), they are also inherently racist (though this only attempts to show itself once explicitly).  But at the end of the film when “the community” is brought together to try to rescue Fool from the house, and Fool’s sister and grandfather arrive, demonstrating something more than mere rescue, Craven attempts to make it something more socially relevant.

At the end of the film, after a major explosion blows thousands of dollar bills into the air, falling among the ethnically diverse “community”, people grab the money and start partying to the hip-hop tune whose mantra is “Do the Right Thing”.  This whole angle of the film feels as hackneyed as anything from Deadly Friend.  Though I did like the oddly unwrapped up ending in which these mutant cannibal “people under the stairs” just escape in the chaos and apparently enter society.

Given the inconsistency of Craven’s work, these productions must get a lot of help from whomever else is working on them.  But however it all came together, The People Under the Stairs is still quite a bit of a hoot.  The main image that I’d maintained had been McGill in the full bondage suit and mask running around with a shotgun, which is comical enough, but what’s rich and more interesting is that the insanity of the characters is just so plain off-kilter and largely undefined that it makes them interesting.  It doesn’t matter exactly why nor does it matter that it doesn’t make sense.  It’s actually a lot more fun and demented because it just plain doesn’t.


Cropsey (2009) movie poster

(2009) directors Barbara Brancaccio, Joshua Zeman
viewed: 08/07/10

“Cropsey”, according to the documentary Cropsey, is an urban legend in the Hudson Valley part of New York state, the name of a serial killer boogeyman, told at summer camps, passed as lore among children, a localized figure of fear.  And for filmmakers Barbara Brancaccio and Joshua Zeman, their own exploration of this legend in their home of Staten Island, leads to a reality not altogether too far removed from that legend.  A real serial killer/child abductor was active in Staten Island during the time of the directors’ childhoods, the early 1970’s through the late 1980’s in which a number of children disappeared.

The real “Cropsey” isn’t Cropsey, but is presumed to be a local man, Andre Rand, who looks very much the part, straight out of central casting, if you will, and he is tried and imprisoned for the kidanpping though not the murder of the only child whose body was actually found.  But the evidence was never very strong and so the question remains, is he really the one who abducted these children?  He’s as likely a suspect as they can find and they manage to find him guilty despite no hard evidence.

What’s most fascinating in this film is the portrait of Staten Island that emerges.  For a non-native New Yorker, it’s not a place that I’ve ever been (though I’ve heard it’s cool to ride the Staten Island ferry).  The picture that is painted here is of a very rural place, very different from the other boroughs of New York City, a place that had been geographically isolated until the 1960’s when a bridge was finally built to connect it to the rest of the city.  It was home to New York’s garbage dump, an immense and scandalized mental institution, and a tuberculosis hospital as well.  The dumping ground, as the filmmakers put it, for New York’s sick, insane, and garbage, and eventually a dumping ground for bodies too.

It’s not just that nature that comes across, though the scope of the hospital, its huge size and massive network of tunnels and the detrius of the now abandoned structures in the woods are clear.  It’s quite a strange and unique place and the people are strange and unique too.  The hospital was shut down some time after a Geraldo Rivera expose literally exposed the horror of the poor treatment of the inmates of the hospital, haunting images of children in various states of undress lolling about in their filth are spectres of a real horror.  But Rand’s connection to the hospital (he had worked there and lived on the grounds in the woods after it closed) is part of the core of the strangeness of this world.  Were there really satanists living in the abandoned hospital?  There was a satanic church that was founded on the island and there are other local weirdos still strutting their stuff in contemporary footage.

The film’s weakness is in the personalization of the story.  The filmmakers embed themselves in the narrative, appearing on camera, not just in voiceover as they explain facts, give perspective, and add their hefty two bits.  It’s not because it is personal, but it adds a little too much commentary (rather than letting the story or the facts or the interviewees) stand on their own.  And it makes it feel a little too DIY as well.

The idea of the blending of urban myth and a real crime is interesting.  And it’s also interesting how mixed facts are with supposition and exaggeration even among the police officers and passionate citizenry.  Some people interviewed throw out necrophilia, human sacrifice, and a Charles Manson-like cult into the procedings, when in reality there were some poorly investigated crimes in which no very valid evidence was brought to light.  The case against Rand is almost entirely circumstantial, though compelling.  And there are truly myths being made in the retelling of the tales.

I don’t know really that urban myths have as much to do with reality.  But in this case, here too is a strong circumstantial case: are the campfire stories of Cropsey really not just tall tales?  Or is the reality, that a man abducted and killed mentally deficient children without getting caught right in the midst of this small odd piece of Armericana far more frightening?  Or that a man who could actually be innocent is imprisoned for the crimes simply because the public wants a perpetrator caught (and he fits the bill)?

There is a lot going on here that is interesting.  I wish the film was just a little better than it is, but it’s still well worth checking out.

That said, I do want to mention that I saw this film On Demand because it’s been released on On Demand even before it plays here in San Francisco.  I’d started this year to utilize On Demand and was getting to liking it, but then since Hot Tub Time Machine (2010), I noticed that the On Demand films are no longer letterboxed, rather full screen, which crops out a lot of the picture.  I fucking hate watching films that have been cut like that.  I suffered through it with Hot Tub Time Machine but decided against watching anything with a meaningful visual aesthetic on On Demand because I can’t see paying $5-10 dollars to watch a film with no DVD extras and see just a portion of the image.  I thought with Cropsey being a documentary, I’d be willing to give it a go and see whether or not the film was shown letterboxed (there is not detail on this anywhere or choice).  But even this film seemed diminished in watching it cropped like this.  It’s a personal preference but I have to say that this may be the last film that I watch on On Demand if I don’t see them letterboxed again.   Maybe I’ll finally get the Netflix streaming thing going.

Sword of the Beast

Sword of the Beast (1965) movie poster

(1965) director Hideo Gosha
viewed: 08/04/10

Another great samurai flick from the 1960’s, Sword of the Beast is co-written and directed by Hideo Gosha.  Shot in black-and-white and on location in the mountains, the film has an interesting visual aesthetic and a near constant chatter of birds in the background.  The location shooting gives the film a unique character, as Gosha foreground nature throughout, sometimes obscurring a swordfight behind the tall grass or having certain swordmen dispatched into the flowing river.

The story is set toward the end of the Tokugawa Shogunate and follows a samurai who is on the run, having slain an official in his clan at the suggestion of an elder.  He had been duped into this murder, however, thinking that the elder who had suggested the crime would help his career advance.  It is a time in which there is not much feudal battle and the strata of society are hard to breach.  As he runs into the woods and mountains, he claims that he has become “a beast”, an animal outside of society, which initially he takes as self-derision.

When he meets another samurai and his wife, who are illegally panning for gold in the mountains, he learns of the further hypocrisy of the society.  That this noble, talented warrior was willing to do something ignoble to gain rank in his clan is something to which he relates.  And when he learns that this samurai’s clan plans to betray him as well after his dutiful action, he is forced into a violent response.

I’ve read that the film, like other notable samurai films of the period, was made as somewhat of a response to the blind dedication that was at the heart of Japanese society going in to WWII, in which people committed themselves to the laws and ideals of their governing bodies.  And like the American Western, the stories posed in period setting allowed for social commentary that would have been too obvious and potentially unwelcomed if stated more overtly.  But I wondered as well if this commentary had other more contemporary parallels, such as the dedication to a business or company, the heads-down company man following orders.

Whatever the key point of target for the commentary of the film, it’s a strong and interesting one.  Another of the Criterion Collection’s fine selection of Japanese films.  At this point, I can only wish they had more.  Since a year or two ago, I’ve been watching more and more samurai films (not yet distinguishing them with all of the specific nomenclature that is available) but learning and gleaning more and more with each film that I see.

It’s good stuff.


After.Life (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo
viewed: 08/03/10

Girl dies.  Wakes up in funeral home.  Mortician tells her she is dead.  Girl has tough time believing that.  Mortician tells her that he has a “gift” that lets him talk to the newly dead to help them with their transition.  Girl isn’t sure she believes him.  Fun ensues.

Well, all but the “Fun ensues” part.

After.Life is a kind of boring would-be thriller in which most of the above happens.  The girl is Christina Ricci, a schoolteacher who is somewhat out of her element in life (until she dies in a car crash — and then she’s really out of her element…and out of life).  Liam Neeson is the mortician, riding the line between benign humanity and vague creepiness.  And the drama also rides a line between whether she is dead or she’s being held captive by a psychopathic mortician who just likes screwing with people and then burying them alive.

Either angle could potentially have made for a decent film.  But written and directed by Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Wojtowicz-Vosloo, the whole thing is tepid even in its best moments.  And at its worst, is just flat-out boring.

I was set to mind recalling an image in a book that I had as a kid about “zombie movies” or something (believe me, I’d love to find a copy of this book if I could remember what it was called) that had a picture of a guy with a naked girl laying on top of a casket with some odd small object on her stomach.  The caption of the photo was “so-and-so tries to make a naked girl interesting”.  And I always assumed the joke was that naked girls were inherently interesting, yet that movie was so bad that the guy was failing.

Well, Christina Ricci spends much of the latter third of this film on a morgue table stark naked and I can tell you that Wojtowicz-Vosloo faced this same challenge and lost.  The film isn’t helped by its coy nature, trying to have a thriller that goes both ways.  Because if Neeson is telling the truth, then it’s sort of more a psychological or metaphysical sort of thing and he’s potentially a kind man.  But if he’s lying and is crazy then it’s pretty weird and scary.  But it’s neither.  But is it neither because it’s both?

Eh.  Anyway, this film ain’t what it’s trying to be cracked up to be.

And I could do without seeing Justin Long (who plays her bereaving boyfriend) in a movie ever again.


Dreamscape (1984) movie poster

(1984) director Joseph Ruben
viewed: 08/02/10

With Christopher Nolan’s head-trippy and visual rich Inception (2010) still raking it in at the box office and attracting much discussion on ye olde internet, another thriller about people entering other people’s dreams has garnered a fair amount of mention.  That would be Joseph Ruben’s 1984 thriller Dreamscape, which I remember liking quite well back in the day, but hadn’t seen in a decade of Sundays.  And it’s a good film, for what it is, something that would pale terribly in comparison from a visual side of things, perhaps in many ways, but still a solid 1980’s sci fi film.

Starring a very young Dennis Quaid as a psychic whiz kid, the film also features such notable actors as Christopher Plummer, Eddie Albert, and Max Von Sydow, and to a lesser extent Kate Capshaw.  Von Sydow and Capshaw are working on a form of psychological therapy that involves specialists who enter into the dreams of patients and Quaid is recruited because of his innate psychic abilities.  However, Plummer is a government agent of high rank (and dubious background) also involved and David Patrick Kelly is a kooky psychic with a penchant for kung fu and weirdness.  And Eddie Albert is the president of the United States who is having recurring nightmares about a post-Nuclear War landscape, suffering guilt feelings and is leaning toward nuclear disarmament.

What is exciting and interesting in the film are its most surreal nightmare sequences.  While the visual effects are pretty low-fi even for the 1980’s, they are effectively designed often, using strange contrasting images against oddly colored backgrounds.  And emanating from the nightmare of a little boy, there is the snakeman, who while a little corny, is a cobra-like stop-motion animated creature, who while no Ray Harryhausen masterpiece, is certainly striking and kinda cool.

For me, I think the visuals of the film may have influenced my teenage dreaming, especially the post-Holocaust red-hued landscapes of burned-out cityscapes.  I’ve actually long held a notion that visual entertainment (film, television, probably video games, etc.) are very influential on people’s dreaming.   Since the Surrealists, cinema has stood as a for of dream-experience in itself, presenting a world like dreaming, but after a while, they begin to influence one another back and forth.  And so in these films which very actively address and employ the world of the dream, one would think a fairly open palette is thrown open for use.

Dreamscape is pretty cool in my estimation, but in thinking back through that litany of films about dreams and the entering, controlling, manipulating of dreams, it should easily share space with another film from 1984, Wes Craven’s original A Nightmare on Elm Street (and possibly some of its sequels).  But even more than Inception, I was also reminded in re-watching Dreamscape of a much lesser thriller, the 1990 Jennifer Lopez dream thriller The Cell.  As in Dreamscape, the process of entering the dream is somewhat therapeutic, though in that case, they are trying to find out where a serial killer has stashed a young woman who is due to be killed.  It might also be worth revisiting, even though it was, as I recall, outright awful.

It’s funny revisitng Dreamscape because I really remember liking this film back in its initial release, maybe even going to see it more than once.  As well, I was struck by the very nice movie poster for the film, which sort of suggests more of a  Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) sort of possibilities a bit misleadingly, but it’s a nice piece of poster-work, imaginitively designed in a style of poster that is now kind of quaint and old-fashioned.  Still, I liked it.  And the same goes for Dreamscape.  It’s not going to convince a soul looking for more Inception, but as far as entertaining 1980’s sci fi with some interesting visual effects, it’s damn alright.

Night Train to Munich

Night Train to Munich (1940) movie poster

(1940) director Carol Reed
viewed: 08/01/10

The facts that it was directed by Carol Reed (The Third Man (1949), Our Man in Havana (1959)) and released by the Criterion Collection were enough to get me to queue this 1940 English wartime thriller.  And quite frankly, I didn’t know much else about it going in.

The film stars Rex Harrison and Margaret Lockwood and is most interestingly set in 1939 in and around the events leading up to the beginning and expansion of WWII, which obviously, was still a deep and significant part of the present.  So this is a thriller set in the wartime of the present of its production, a yet still ongoing war, far from close to conclusion.  And to an extent, this is a piece of propaganda, playing out as an adventure film.  Which actually struck me as interesting in and of itself.  It might be worth a good investigation to not just the English films of this period but perhaps all films relating to WWII while the war was still ongoing, much less, still so young as in 1940.

Written by the duo Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, the film features, among everything else, the recurrent characters known as Charters and Caldicott, played by Basil Radford and Nauton Wayne, who went on to show up as popular cameos in several films and who eventually seemed to have etched themselves into the English national consciousness.  They had first appeared in the Alfred Hitchcock film The Lady Vanishes (1938), also written by Gilliat and Launder.  The characters are two humorous cliches/ideals of the wandering, bumbling Englishmen, obsessed with cricket, commenting rather unrealistically on the state of German operations while traveling by train in Germany at the start of the war, and ultimately stepping up and doing what’s necessary to help our heroes fight the good fight.

Outside of those angles, the film has some nice design elements going for it in what I “read” to be models of towns, villages, camps, hills (little miniatures like Godzilla might have stomped on), in lieu of spanning real-world vistas of the Alps and other places.  I’ve always had a soft spot for the “matte paintings” that were used in old films to suggest fantastic backdrops, and I think you could file these designs alongside of those.

The film has much humor and is certainly entertaining enough, though it’s highly silly and implausible.  I was reminded as the high adventure comes to what was meant to be a dramatic climax, that this film is only about 10 years out of the silent films and that the exciting finish with its challenging designs (a cable car in between two alps, separating Germany from Switzerland, with a rather gaping chasm below), really has as much to owe to those popular traditions as it does owe itself to a more grounded and believable landscape and ending.

In all, it’s a much less polished or dramatic film than Reed’s later works.  But it’s a fun time and an interesting time, perhaps especially if taken into the considerations that I mentioned, looking at it as an artifact of the War Era or even more in what it says about the English or the English’s perception of what it means to be English.  National character indeed.

Mary and Max

Mary and Max (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Adam Elliot
viewed: 07/31/10

Shot in muted colors, Mary and Max is an odd little stop-motion animation film.  It’s muted and downbeat visual style ties in with the sad but heart-warming story of Mary, a little girl from Australia who strikes up a pen pal friendship with a middle-aged New Yorker named Max.  They are both victims of osctacism and loneliness, but their odd friendship and long-time epistulary relationship offers them both just that small amount of happiness that allows them to blossom (to an extent).

The whole design aesthetic of filmmaker Adam Elliot’s film is one of a humorously awkward, yet gloriously detailed world, with all the characters bearing some twisted or wonky nature to their appearance.  Mary’s Australia is sepia-toned, where everything is brown, including her favorite color and a rather unpleasant birthmark that resides on the middle of her forehead.  Max’s New York City is even more muted, pretty much black and white, save for the items of color (brown usually) that Mary sends him in her care packages.

Mary is an 8 year old, with an alcoholic mother and a varying grasp on reality, when she grabs at random an address from a New York phone book and starts a letter-writing communication with a highly neurotic, overweight a-theistic Max, who eventually is diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome.  The film opens with a statement that it’s “based on a true story”, though for obvious reasons that is kind of doubtful throughout.  However, as Mary matures and becomes interested in psychology, largely inspired by her desire to help Max, you kind of wonder.

The film is quite dark, not just visually, but in its exploration of loneliness and isolation, mental illness, and death.  But it also has great humor and a great love for its characters, really achieving something emotionally at its core, which is what certainly makes it stand out more than anything.

The film is Australian and features voice acting by Toni Collette, Eric Bana, Barry Humphries (Dame Edna), and Philip Seymour Hoffman as Max.  It’s not a film that I’d heard of, until I was turned onto it by a friend, so it’s relatively obscure.  It’s a unique thing, a very unusual story, with interesting oddball characters, painted in a singular set of designs, but more than anything, it is quite touching and quite enjoyable.   2009 was a great year for animation, and Mary and Max should be added to any list that mentions  the others Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), Coraline (2009), Ponyo (2008), and Up (2009).  But unlike those others, this one might be for the slightly older children.