Onibaba

Onibaba (1964) movie poster

(1964) director Kaneto Shindô
viewed: 11/25/10

Onibaba was a left-over from my Halloween cavalcade of horror films that I’d queued up for the holiday.  And like all Halloweens, there are always left-overs, and with another film by Kaneto Shindô, Kuroneko, playing at the Castro the next day, it seemed a very apropos time to stick it in the DVD player.

Based on a Buddhist parable, ancient folklore, the story is set in an ancient time, during a period warring states in which anarchy and chaos has come to rule the day.  An older woman and her daughter-in-law cobble a life together by murdering bypassing roving samurai who have escaped from the war.  They kill them for their armor and weapons and sell it for meal.   When a formerly conscripted neighbor returns to their doorstep, starving, he turns out to be a friend of the older woman’s son, the younger woman’s husband, and claims the son has been slain by farmers who caught them stealing, and that he is the only one to have escaped.  While both women grieve, the man quickly sets his goals on the younger woman, lusting heartily for her and making his desires clear.

Shindô’s film, while taking an ancient tale, views it through a very contemporary lens, contemporary for 1964, the year the film was made.   The women wear thin robes, and are often topless.  Not in leering sexuality, but in rough, gritty, sweaty, lusty naturality.  The film is rife with the basest and most basic aspects of human need: food, shelter, life, sex.  And set among the the tall susuki grass blades that tower like an ever-undulating forest, this basic human drama plays out.

With murder being the means of survival, the film is full of menace and threat.  But what unfolds, the fear that the mother-in-law has of being abandoned by the younger woman, without whom she would be alone and potentially incapable of sustaining herself, gives way to her trying to fool the young woman into fearing the gods.  She instills her with stories of sin and hell, and finally, when the opportunity arises, gains the mask of a devil to give form to her frightening tales.

It’s a beautifully shot, wildly lusty telling of a story that is quite simple at its heart, but Shindô uses his material well, the natural landscape and sounds, the taiko drums, building a vision of the raw fears and needs of humanity when the world has turned awry.

While the film’s story is based in legend, and Shindô infuses it with a 1960’s open mentality about sexuality, the film also reflects the times in other ways.  I’m not as familiar with Japanese culture of the 1960’s, how much chaos and social change played into the daily life, but the war-torn Japan of the film seems to reflect a sense of anarchy perhaps quite metaphorical for the times in which it was made.

Whatever the case, it’s an excellent film.  And what turned out to be a good pairing with Kuroneko, which I did see the following day.

Raging Bull

Raging Bull (1980) movie poster

(1980) director Martin Scorsese
viewed: 11/24/10 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

It had been decades since I last saw Martin Scorsese’s hands-down masterpiece, Raging Bull.  And then, at the time, that was probably on VHS.  So, the opportunity to see it on the big screen and an early pre-holiday release from work had me down at the Castro Theatre to witness the great boxing bio-pic that earned Robert De Niro as Oscar and should have earned Scorsese one as well.

Shot in black-and-white, with an aesthetic nod to crime scene photographer Weegee, the film depicts a great deal of brutality and violence, not all of it simply in the boxing ring, not all of it merely physical.  This is the story of boxer Jake LaMotta, who won the middleweight world championship in 1949 and was known for his bullying style of fighting, known as “the Bronx Bull”.

The film starts out with LaMotta in middle age, overweight, divorced, and making a living as an entertainer in clubs and bars, doing recitations and telling jokes.  But the bulk of the film goes back to his early years in professional boxing, recounting four of LaMotta’s six bouts with Sugar Ray Robinson, who hadn’t lost a match until he fought LaMotta, but who also beat LaMotta in the most brutal match of his career.

LaMotta’s home life is more of the story.  Much like the fighter in the ring, he runs his life with his brother Joey, played by Joe Pesci, and his young second wife Vicky, played by Cathy Moriarty.  It’s funny because he only slaps her around a couple of times and knocks her out once, but the feeling of the menace and violence is much more, with his brooding, jealous rages and non-stop suspicion and insecurity. 

Like many of Scorsese’s early films, Raging Bull is about working class New York, hardscrabble kids honed by their world, with the mafia an ever-present, looming figure in the world.  And the De Niro and Pesci almost define the dialogue and delivery with their tough wiseguy repartee whose stilted ineloquence doesn’t all hamper their communication.

The film is energetic and exciting, Scorsese’s best work as a director.  The fight sequences, which aren’t over-long, nor the bulk of the narrative, have brutal impact, even in black-and-white, highlighting the hardest hits, the slow-motion breaking of a nose, the spurting of blood.  Shot for shot, there are much more gruesome films, but Raging Bull gives such weight and impact to the violence, it hits the audience a lot harder, right in the gut.

Scorsese uses sound, the lack of sound, camera movement, slow-motion, quick cuts, a smorgasbord of techniques in great virtuosity.  For as stylish and artistic as the film-making gets, the every bit drives the narrative, each sequnce works for impact, and the film, while not the most enjoyable of subjects, is a riveting and masterly experience.

It’s long held as Scorsese’s best film, though he certainly has others that have qualified as masterpieces as well.  It stands out, however, and is often cited as one of the greatest films of the 1980’s.  And I have to say that I concur.  It’s a hell of a film.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 1 (2010) movie poster

(2010) director David Yates
viewed: 11/20/10 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

The penultimate Harry Potter movie.  What can I tell you about it that you don’t already know?

Even at the time of this writing, after five days in release, the film has brought in over $125 million dollars, and the majority of the most avid Harry Potter aficionados will have already seen the film.

Besides that, there is a ubiquitousness to Harry Potter now, a franchise much bigger than its prior not-so-humble beginnings.  I don’t know where he stands exactly in the world of popular movie icons, but he’s everywhere and with the growing anticipation of next year’s finale, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011), this is one of the biggest film events of the year.

What’s really interesting about this series of films (and yes, I have now seen them all), is how going back to the first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone(2001), they have used, over what will be a ten year span, the same primary actors in all of the roles (with one exception due to an untimely passing).  The primary actors being children, Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint, makes this all the much more unusual and amazing.  The fact that they cast three children who would be capable enough to make eight films over a decade, grow with the characters over the duration of the film’s narrative time (also about 10 years), is really something of pure casting magic.  None of them were known child actors before this.  Now they have grown over the 10 years in the public eye and on the screen in the roles of Harry Potter, Hermione Granger, and Ron Weasley, respectively, and have all gotten better.

It’s really quite something.

But for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, which took J.K. Rowling’s final Harry Potter tome and split the story into two films for narrative management (the thing is close to 800 pages long) and for financial gain, the other rather amazing thing is that the film is actually a better film than most of the rest of the series.  For director David Yates, this is his third Harry Potter film after Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince(2009) (he’s also directing the final installment as well), after a range of directors had done the first four films, including Christopher Columbus who did the first two, Mike Newell who did Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire(2005) and Alfonso Cuarón, who up to this point made what I considered to be the best of the films, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004).

I would say that most of the films of the series were strong in their casting and general visual design, bringing Rowling’s characters and world to the screen in a way that really seemed to capture her vision.  Of course, now, after a decade or so of these films, it would be hard to even remember what one’s vision of the characters would have been without the likes of Radcliffe and co.  But the films typically also tried to manage Rowling’s rather unwieldy tomes, books often fattened with details and subplots, that really could have used editing in print, much less on the screen.  Boiling down hundreds of pages into two hour or more installments tended to be the major tripping point and often the movies, while capturing the Harry Potter universe, Hogwarts and all, was well done, the overall feeling was not one of great satisfaction.

But oddly enough, I didn’t find myself faulting Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallowsquite so much in this.  That’s not to say that it’s an amazing film nor to say that it couldn’t have been better.  The story sags significantly in the middle in its long ponderous time in the woods with Harry, Hermione and Ron sniping at each other while they hunt for the fragments of the villainous Voldemort’s soul (called horcruxes).  Borrowing perhaps from J.R.R. Tolkien and not borrowing quite so well.

And for me, who quit reading the books after Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire due to fatigue, seeing the story unfold in my original exposure, probably played out more engagingly as well.

My son saw the film with a friend on the same day, so I took Clara to the film, my 6 1/2 year old daughter.  Taking my 6 1/2 year old daughter to a PG-13 film wasn’t something that I did unthinkingly.  She’d seen the more recent films (I’m not sure that she even knows which Harry Potter films she’s seen and which she hasn’t) on DVD, and she had great excitement for this, and she assured me that she wouldn’t be frightened.  Besides jumping at one or two leaping snakes (leftovers perhaps from when this film was going to be released in 3-D, as the finale will be), she did quite well, and she liked it too.

Ultimately, there is next July 15, when the second half of Rowling’s final book is brought to the screen.  When we all get to do this again, re-consider this franchise, the growth in physicality and in talent of the young cast, the management of a big, big, big ten year, seven book, eight film epic, and how many things had to go right to get it to work out this well.

Best Worst Movie

Best Worst Movie (2009) movie poster

(2009) Michael Stephenson
viewed: 11/19/10

Best Worst Movie is a documentary about the cult phenomenon of one of the most popularly bad movies of recent years, Troll 2 (1990), and interestingly, it’s a personal film, made by Michael Stephenson, who starred in the low-budget straight-to-video bomb.  Now an adult, Stephenson is drawn to the film that at one point in his young life looked to him like his great big break in movies, but what turned into a thing of great embarrassment for him and many others associated with the film.  But Troll 2 shocked them all and has gone on to be one of the great cult films in the “so bad it’s great” category.

Stephenson focuses on the “star” of Troll 2, George Hardy, an amazingly affable Alabaman goofball, who has since become a successful small town dentist.  Like almost everyone else who wound up in the film, produced in Utah in 1989, this was a one-off fluke in a life that had little to do with the film after it was produced.  But Hardy, a charming ham of a man, discovers the film’s underground popularity, showing in several major US cities and winds up going to the screenings and basking in the glory of a major movie star, though deeply aware of the irony.

The film has a rabid, passionate, indulgent fan base and eventually most of the cast is reunited for screenings, and most of them talk to Stephenson, along with the director and his wife the screenwriter, to reminisce and re-enact some of the movie’s more goofy scenes.  The revisit the site of much of the shooting and tour around at conventions and enjoy a level of kudos and attention that they never experienced in their normal lives over the prior two decades.

Most of the cast seems to have come around to a place to appreciate the fact that while the movie that they made was incredibly bad, it has still earned a great deal of love and appreciation and they reconcile and enjoy the attention.  The director, Claudio Fragasso, and his wife are a bit more delusional about the film.  Fragrasso, who like the bulk of his crew, is Italian, seems to really believe that the film he made was not as bad as everyone thinks.  And if there is anyone to blame, it’s the actors (dogs!).  They also visit the mom from the film who seems to suffer from mental illness of some sort and compares the film to Clark Gable or Humphrey Bogart.

Stephenson manages his material well, not overly exploiting the more unusual or pathetic of the people that they dredge up from the film.  And while at first Best Worst Movie seems like a bit of a love letter to George Hardy, it follows him through an arc of joyful indulgence and fun through a realization that while a couple hundred people in a major city showing up for a screening of a bad cult film is really thrilling, it’s not real stardom, especially when you’re languishing as a memorabilia convention in England or a horror film convention (which freaks him out to no end).

And in the end, the film is about the reality behind the curtain of even a really bad movie, the real lives, the hopes and dreams (and delusions).  It’s also about cinephilia, about the relationship that fans have with films, and while it doesn’t necessarily come to any great discoveries therein, it paints a pretty interesting portrait of cult film and fanaticism.  It’s a pretty sweet little film.

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning

Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981) movie poster

(1981) directors James Cameron, Ovidio G. Assonitis
viewed: 11/19/10

What do you get when you cross a piranha with a grunion and a flying fish?  A pretty darn bad movie.

Though director James Cameron is credited as the director, which made this his first feature film, he was actually fired a couple of weeks into the shooting and had limited influence on this sequel to the Roger Corman/Joe Dante original Piranha (1978).

The best thing about this film is the poster, which is pretty darn good.  But the hilarious flying piranha are definitely good for a laugh.  It’s hard to imagine the scenes of the bat-like piranha swooping down on a crowd of beachgoers actually frightening anyone.  But you could hurt yourself laughing.

The film stars Lance Hendriksen, the only recognizable face in the crowd.  Of course, Hendriksen would show up in Cameron’s The Terminator (1984) and his Aliens (1986) with a little more to show for himself.

At times the film is really, really bad.  At others just merely bad.

Still, I feel some sense of completion now having seen both Piranha and now this film.

There must be something wrong with me.

Predators

Predators (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Nimród Antal
viewed: 11/16/10

This Predator (1987) re-boot is a solid concept, picking up the general idea of the original film about a group of mercenaries in a jungle who suddenly realize that they are being hunted by a bad-ass alien, and putting a new group of tough guys in a jungle being hunted by bad-ass aliens, but this time, they’re on an alien planet.  So, in essence, you get a lot of the original, the jungle setting, the character types, the alien/predators, but reconfigured and potentially refreshed without actually “re-making” the movie.  It’s a good idea.  I liked it.

Predator was a surprisingly good 1980’s Arnold Schwarzenegger film, from director John McTiernan.  I was far from alone in feeling that way.  The “predator” became a cult movie monster.  It begot one sequel, Predator 2 (1990).  And then quite a bit later, the predators returned in AVP: Alien vs. Predator (2004) and AVPR: Aliens vs Predator – Requiem (2007), which I suppose seemed like a good idea at the time, though was probably doomed to the law of diminishing returns.

So, in today’s Hollywood where anything pre-existing is ripe for re-doing (rather than actually concocting anything new), a re-boot of the “character” seemed ripe.  Apparently, this new premise came from the mind or Robert Rodriguez, who has a producing credit on the film, who some long time back wrote a script with a similar premise.  Though that film never got made, the idea got dusted off, re-written and put into the hands of director Nimród Antal (Kontroll (2003), Vacancy (2007)) and blasted into theaters this last summer.  I’d actually wanted to see it but didn’t get a chance before now.

The film opens with Adrien Brody (the unlikely action hero) falling from the sky, frantically launching a parachute, and barely surviving his plummet to the jungle floor.  Before he can eve get his bearings, other people are hitting the ground around him.  Where it opens like a strange dream, and the characters are realizing that they have been plucked from somewhere and then suddenly dropped into this new weird environment, it’s a strange scenario (and as I mentioned, one with great potential).  The people are all variety of bad-ass tough guys (and a woman, Alice Braga), a multicultural group, and armed as well.

One of the great things about the original Predator was the great characters.  Everyone one a big, burly bad-ass, and while they hardly were about serious back-stories or real character development, the characters were deftly-sketched and really entertaining (I still always think of Bill Duke running the plastic razor over his head throughout the film).  In fact, the characters were really part of what made that film so successful.

But despite a cast that includes Brody, Braga, Laurence Fishburne, Topher Grace, and Danny Trejo, Predators doesn’t manage to make its characters interesting or even their interactions, camaraderie or antipathies very believable.  And really, beyond the great potential for the premise, the film is almost color-by-numbers when it comes to the script and the way that the story plays out.  The characters figure out what is happening, get killed off one by one, and eventually they learn a little about their hunters, and of course, there is the ultimate showdown at the end.

For the characters, Fishburne comes off the best.  And Topher Grace comes off the worst.  I won’t spoil it for you, but his whole character just doesn’t make sense at all and only goes from bad to worse in that regard.

All that said, it’s still pretty entertaining.  Antal handles the action well, and it’s not a bad ride for the genre.  It’s just, particularly in comparison with the original film, starkly lacking in cleverness, character and creativity.  I mean, I could have written a more interesting script.  And that isn’t what you want to be thinking when you’re watching a movie.

Antichrist

Antichrist (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Lars von Trier
viewed: 11/14/10

This controversial art/horror film by perennially controversial Danish film-maker Lars von Trier doesn’t make for easy film-viewing.  Which is in line with von Trier’s precepts.  Meaning that he doesn’t make films that are easy or unchallenging.  He wants to engage (or enrage) an audience, provoke, stir, incite.  And this film had its anticipated splash when it premiered at Cannes last year, drawing raves and spite, as well as an admonishment for misogyny.

It’s something else.

I was brought to mind of some melding of David Lynch and Takeshi Miike perhaps.  But that’s a little discrediting of von Trier.  It’s not so derivative that it’s exactly “like” anything really (except perhaps some of his own work).  It’s a strangely insular story, harrowing emotionally, but even more harrowing in its brutality.  He certainly makes his actors earn their money.

It’s the story of an American couple whose toddler falls to his death while they are in the throes of lovemaking.  The man, Willem Dafoe, is a therapist, who tries to work his own brand or therapy on the grieving mother who is played by Charlotte Gainsbourg.  The process takes them into a cabin in the woods, a site of trauma, where they confront the fears and realities of grief and nature, life and death.

The film is all about psychology, therapy, and quite profoundly Freudian.   Gainsbourg has been studying Gynocide, historical misogynies, and somewhere at the root of all meaning of this film, this nature of evil proves out that “Nature IS Evil”.   Somehow, deep down, everything in their Eden is evil, particularly the woman’s own nature, especially when it is cut loose.

It’s one of those films with lots of potential readings.  I mean, it would be easy on the surface of the narrative, and focusing on some of the film’s most violent and visual moments, to ferret out a thick streak of misogyny.  But is that von Trier’s point, that women are evil?  Or is there something purely sinister and condescending in Dafoe’s character, his patronizing, emotionless process of “therapy”?  And what of all the weird symbolism?

The film is a bit of a mind-fuck, and a painful one at that. While there are striking visuals, moments of beauty, the film is more often a grueling horror show of emotions, eventually unravelling into a much more graphic and brutal, more traditional horror show of bizarre violence.

It’s one of those kinds of films where if you were simply trying to give a “star rating” to, you’d be hard pressed to figure out what it merited.  Is it genius?  The Criterion Collection, which released the film on DVD, has a pretty stellar track record with selecting the cream of World Cinema.  Is it pretentious, potentially offensive, art?  I can guarantee you that more than half of the movie-going public wouldn’t begin to know what to do with this film.  Did I enjoy it?  Jesus, I don’t know.

One thing about writing this film diary, which is not beholden to any real rules of criticism, journalism, or anything, is that I don’t need to necessarily come to any conclusions.  I certainly have not yet personally come to any conclusions about Antichrist.   I don’t know that I will any time soon.

Piranha

Piranha (1978) movie poster

(1978) director Joe Dante
viewed: 11/13/10

Before going to see Alexandre Aja’s recent re-make Piranha 3D (2010), I’d been wanting to watch the original Roger Corman-produced, John Sayles-written, Joe Dante-directed original.  Actually, I not only wanted to watch the original but also its sequel, Piranha Part Two: The Spawning (1981).  But the DVD gods were not cooperating.  Between Netflix (which still doesn’t carry the original) and GreenCine (which had a long back-log for it), there was no Piranha to be had besides the shiny, 3-D new-fangled version.  Until just recently.

Made three years after Jaws (1975), and clearly marketed along those lines (just look at the poster!), the film is often referred to as a comedy or a parody.  While the film has some comic moments, and a few really good lines, it is an earnest effort in its own right.  Not nearly the exploitation orgy of the re-make, the film’s charms are a little deeper.  It has a good cast, including a number of great character actors (featuring Kevin McCarthy, Keenan Wynn, Dick Miller, Paul Bartel, and Barbara Steele), and with Sayles on the script, the film ends up having, if not depth and insight, a lot of character and cleverness, as well as some well-managed low-budget effects.

The story starts off with two young hikers, heading up a mountain in rural Texas, breaking into a fenced-off military testing site, and foolishly going for a swim in a pool that they know little about.  Of course, they don’t make it past the first scene, either one of them.  But when a female detective comes looking for them and drains the pool into the local river, the pool’s residents, genetically altered super-piranha are unleashed on an unsuspecting populace, streaming down toward a summer camp and a lake front park that is about to open.  Oh the humanity!

Actually, the humanity gets a good munching on.  And to a greater extent than in Jaws, kids are not just endangered, but attacked, eaten, and killed.  A long while back, I read an article in Film Threat that discussed Steven Spielberg’s penchant for putting children in danger and it cited Jaws as the one film in which he’d actually followed through on the threat and had any children harmed.  In Piranha, we’ve got scads of summer camp kids in inner tubes in a swimming race getting nibbled, chomped, and de-fleshed by the hungry fishes.   Later, the fish move on to the more adult-themed lake front resort, and while there’s not nearly Aja’s level of tongue-in-cheek T&A, you can see the model for the film that Aja wound up making in the end.

While the story cites military abuses of science, other interesting and timely issues spring to mind.  As the fish are introduced into the river system, one is reminded of the Asian carp (and other invasive species) issues that plague the United States today.  And while it’s not really about eco-horror, it’s amusing that what they use to exterminate the fish at the end of the film is toxic waste.  They “pollute them to death”.  Of course, that had it’s own timely commentary in the 1970’s, but still, it plays with added poignancy today.

In the scientist’s office, there is a strange, stop-motion animated creature who is never explained and who drops out of the story, presumably the further results of experimentations.  Curious but just a little aside more than anything.

Of course, the film paved its way for a sequel, which I’ve queued up for myself.

It’s another quality Roger Corman production.

Godzilla Raids Again

Godzilla Raids Again (1955) movie poster

(1955) director Motoyoshi Oda
viewed: 11/12/10

I’ve been watching Godzilla movies with my kids for about 3 years now.  So far, all the original Showa series.  And though it began as a bit of an experiment, with much younger kids, this latest viewing was requested by my daughter.  Not the film itself, but “a Godzilla movie”.  And we were down to three left of the original series that are available on Netflix.  Oddly, a few are missing from availability.  And I haven’t figured out what to do about that.

The funny thing about Godzilla Raids Again is that I’d never seen the darn thing.  The second of the original Godzilla films, coming hot on the heels of the original Gojira (1954).   Actually, it’s a little less odd in some ways.  For some odd reason, when it was released in the US originally, Godzilla Raids Again was re-packaged as Gigantis, the Fire Monster.  So despite being the only other black-and-white Godzilla film and being the first to feature a battle between two titanic beasts, Godzilla and Anguirus, this one somehow eluded me for many years.

As in watching these films with the kids, we watch the dubbed and re-edited American versions.   The only exception I made was in watching the original Gojira, which I did without them, and allowed myself to watch it as a foreign film with subtitles.  It certainly can and does make for a different experience.  And in the case of Godzilla Raids Again, it’s probably fairly detrimental to the film.  It’s ripe for comedy quite a bit.

In this one, hydrogen bomb testing unleashes the two dinosaurs and they find their way to Japan to wreak havoc.  Interestingly, they wreak havoc in Osaka, not Tokyo, for a change.  And initially, the monsters are only interested in battling one another.  That is, until Godzilla kills Anguirus and then just has Osaka to take his aggression out upon.  He meets a rather interesting doom, buried beneath an avalanche.

The kids really enjoyed it.  For Clara, it’s hard for her to remember back 3 years ago when she was 3 and we were first testing the waters with giant rubber-suited Japanese monster movies.  Felix was 6, so he remembers the movies a little better.  They’re actually keenly interested to re-watch a couple of favorites, but I told them that I’d like to get through the other two films left in my Netflix queue before back-tracking.

I, of course, grew up with Godzilla myself, this same series of films, some of which were still being released new at the time.  And Godzilla was my favorite monster for whatever reason.  We haven’t been watching them in any particular order over time, which served our purposes for watching whichever seemed to tickle a fancy at the time, but it might have been interesting to watch the evolution of the creature from villain to hero.  And I’m a little bummed because I really would like to watch Destroy All Monsters (1968) (a personal favorite from childhood), All Monsters Attack (1969), and Godzilla vs. Megalon (1973), but Netflix doesn’t carry those titles.

We do have a couple left to go, so, depending on the kids’ whims and fancies, you’ll see more of those Godzilla flicks here in coming weeks.

If you’re interested in seeing a list of all the Godzilla movies we’ve watched, click here for the whole bunch!