Devil (2010) movie poster

(2010) director John Erick Dowdle
viewed: 01/29/11

If you’re M. Night Shyamalan, you must not tune out the critics.  Undaunted by increasingly bad reviews of his own films, Shyamalan has spread his film production footprint into what is termed “The Night Chronicles,” a new series of films that he produces that are made from his “ideas” (he’s credited as having conceived the story), then written and directed by collaborators.  One assumes that he’s just got more stories than time and he wants to spread the love around.

Devil is the first of the “Night Chronicles” and features the kind of plot that Rod Serling might have made good use of on The Twilight Zone.   Five strangers are stuck on an elevator in a skyscraper in Philadelphia.  And one of them is the Devil in human form.

But Shyamalan is no Serling, there’s little wit in the ironies, and strangely a quite Puritanical religiosity to the story.  We are told, in a very leading and tedious voiceover narration, that the Devil is known to come to Earth in human form to torture some sinners that he’s about to take to Hell before he kills them.  This is chalked up to a traditional folklore.

But the people are varying types of sinners, liars, cheats, blackmailers, manslaughterers, and the film treats their crimes as unforgivable (largely).  As the horrified, helpless building people and police officers look on (via closed circuit television), the people start dying one by one as the lights flash off and they turn on one another, thinking that each other is the killer.  Only an insanely superstitious security worker (who turns out to be the narrator) susses out that this is the Devil at work and seems to understand all this chaos and strange shennanigans.  It’s funny that he’s the voice of reason becuase (while he’s right within the story), he sounds like a super-kook who should perhaps be locked up.

The characters are fleshed out in deft though facile fashion.  They are “types” with quick and easy  back-stories to explain who they are and why they are there.  And really, for as much flak as I am throwing at the story, the film is actually entertaining enough.  It’s not poorly made.  It is strangely judgmental and smug in its voice.  And the “final twist” is pretty easy to see coming from a pretty early point.

The irony, perhaps, to paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre, is that “Hell is other people,” especially the thought of being trapped on an elevator with them for who knows how long.  Who needs the Devil, really?

Case 39

Case 39 (2009) movie poster

(2009) director Christian Alvert
viewed: 01/27/11

Case 39 wants to be a more intelligent and frightening horror film, but just is not equipped with the necessary elements to achieve either.    In fact, it’s a pretty lame film starring Renée Zellweger and Bradley Cooper.  It’s not terribly surprising, knowing that it sat on the shelf for a couple of years after it was filmed before finally getting released last year.  That’s not usually an omen of quality.

While it lacks wit and tension, it does have some strange elements in twisting the situation of a potentially abused child and her would-be rescuer.  Zellweger plays the case worker, given her 39th case to handle, who discovers Lillith, a strange sweet 10 year old who seems to be living with vicious, anti-social parents.  Zellweger manages to save the girl, against many odds, from being cooked alive in the oven by her crazed mom and dad.  It’s actually the film’s most affecting scene because at that point, we don’t know what is what yet.

Of course, this is a horror film, so the rescue is the beginning of the twist.  What’s strange is that going into help the family, Zellweger’s well-meaning case worker notes the subtle signs of abuse, talks the language of therapy, proposes a psychological explanation for everything.  When it turns out that there is a supernatural aspect to the story and that little Lillith may be not only not so innocent but perhaps even a demonic, evil, murderous entity, the film pivots Zellweger’s thinking from caring, nurturing sweetness to suspicious, fearful belief that Lillith is pure evil.

This makes for some really potentially strange sequences, as when Lillith, speaking sweetly and seeking love and companionship, that Zellweger withdraws and starts to act crazy.   Actually, if the girl wasn’t a demon, then the way that Zellweger’s character goes from her protector to her tormentor, hating and fearing the child, would seem as pure psychosis.  And there are some funny moments as a result.  The film’s silliness factor starts hitting code red toward the end, getting kind of amusing in its badness.

There is an interesting contrast with The Last Exorcism (2010), which I had just watched the night prior.  In The Last Exorcism, we also have a child with a demon inside, but the protagonists’ approach is one of secular psychological concern to explain and assist.  While in The Last Exorcism, when the situation proves too much for kindness and good medical help, all hell breaks loose.  In Case 39, while the protagonist begins with that nurturing approach, there is a quick shift into believing the the outrageous and supernatural and a hard-hearted change in attitude toward the child in question.  Unfortunately, the film doesn’t really have the wherewithal to take these ironies for much besides some emotive violence and a few comical lines.

The Last Exorcism

The Last Exorcism (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Daniel Stamm
viewed: 01/26/11

While it doesn’t look like much, “what another exorcism movie?”, The Last Exorcism is actually a cut above the average (a low average it must be said) horror film.  Produced by Eli Roth, the film has a moderately novel concept, a reverend who performs exorcisms but doesn’t really believe in them.  He does what he does as a form of “therapy”, faking effects, acting his role, in order to help people with “worldly” ills and ailments that they believe are “possession”.  And he’s followed on one of these missions by a film crew.

The film unfortunately takes the “mock-documentary”/”found footage” approach that has become way too common in horror films in the last decade.  On the positive side of this, the film doesn’t try to make this effect seem overly “realistic”, meaning the film has better cinematography and isn’t so entirely married to the concept as other are.  But the question still arises: why do it this way?  Why not just make a straightforward narrative film with the same material.  The weakest part of the film ends up being the ending, with shaky camera in the dark woods, while the cameraman is running, suddenly stops, spins around and OH! There is somebody there!  Imagine that!

The film’s strength is its cast, namely Patrick Fabian as the secular-leaning minister Cotton Marcus.  The actors are all good, but they seem to lack the Southern character of the setting (rural Louisiana).  Everyone sounds like a Yankee.

But the film draws you in.  Some of the plot twists are a little surprising (teasingly interesting, though not fully satisfying).  Still, the film holds together better than a lot, and its qualities are not gore and shock value, and as I mentioned its tension is a little denuded by the style of faux-documentary, shaky-camera work.   Oddly, it lacks a lot of the types of things that usually elevate a genre flick, unique details, potent scares, et cetera. Still, it’s not bad.

Still, I look forward to the day when the “found footage”/”fake-documentary” style has ebbed back into obscurity.

Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) movie poster

(1928) directors Charles Reisner, Buster Keaton
viewed: 01/25/11

Sick day home with both kids, me sick, too.  Netflix streaming beckoned.  But really, at present, as good as the selection is for this service, it’s also quite limited.  While I recognize it is the future, even the near future, right now it’s good but not superb.  However, I do have to say, the opportunity to re-watch Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. with the kids.

We’d watched it a while back, early in our ventures in silent comedy.  At the time, Felix had laughed his way through the whole last half hour of the film.  And while we’ve watched a number of other Buster Keaton movies, as well as Charlie Chaplin, in the interim, I kind of wanted to revisit this film and The General (1927), as well.

I guess that I didn’t find it quite as hilarious this time around as I did the first time, though the film’s final half hour or so, set during a tornado that pulls the entire river town down around everyone’s ears, especially Keaton’s!, is out-and-out terrific.   The stunt when the building facade falls down on top of him and he is positioned in the only spot where the open window lands on top of him, leaving him unscathed, is one of his best most signature gags.

Clara didn’t remember it all that well, but enjoyed it this time around as well.  We all enjoyed it.

Animal Kingdom

Animal Kingdom (2010) movie poster

(2010) director David Michôd
viewed: 01/22/11

This Aussie crime flick lives up to its earthy, gritty rep, especially Jacki Weaver, who plays the middle-aged matron behind this familial crew of criminals.  Partially based on real events and real criminals, Animal Kingdom is fairly conventional in its telling, but strikes a chord with unique, riveting characters, creating something fresh and compelling.

The film opens with a teenage boy, sitting watching a crummy game show, next to his mother who seems to be sleeping.  But suddenly, paramedics arrive and it turns out that his mother has overdosed on heroin, and he’s waiting for help to arrive, still immensely blase and perhaps more interested in the inane game show than his mother’s life hanging by a thread.  It’s a strange, jarring scene, that sets the landscape for him throughout the film.

He turns to his grandmother, Grandma Smurf (Weaver), who takes him in, his closest family left when his mother doesn’t recover from her OD.  Grandma has borne a whole clan of thugs, each a little less villainous than the one before him, with the eldest of the group, the hardened, heartless killer.  The younger ones are still going through varying degrees of initiation into this crime family, including the nephew.

Guy Pearce, who seems to only show up in good films, plays the good cop, the detective who tries to reach out to him to rat out his family and turn to the good side.   Things, as they typically do, escalate from bad to worse to worse, but the story is tied to this naive, young man, the innocent, coming of age to the brutality of the venal tribe.  And the question follows, where will he wind up.  Will he be transformed into a killer or side with humanity?  And in this sense, it’s fairly conventional.

But Weaver’s Grandma Smurf, with her cloying sweet, yet annoying voice, her kisses that linger a definite moment or two too long on her children’s lips, whose banal facade of common middle age belies a ruthlessness as deep as the ocean, she is the masterpiece of the film, and if anything, she pushes a solid drama into the realms of truly worth seeing.

The whole “animal kingdom” motif, however, seems a little trite.  The beastliness, the wild, untamed nature of these human animals, compared to lions and other predatory creatures…it’s perhaps a weak point in the film, which may perhaps prove out a less mature script and concept.  I won’t nitpick, though.  It’s a good flick.


Fantasia (1940) movie poster

(1940) directors James Algar (segment “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”), Samuel Armstrong, (segments “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor” and “The Nutcracker Suite”), Ford Beebe, (segment “The Pastoral Symphony”), Norman Ferguson, (segment “Dance of the Hours”), Jim Handley, (segment “The Pastoral Symphony”), T. Hee, (segment “Dance of the Hours”), Wilfred Jackson (segment “Night on Bald Mountain/Ave Maria”), Hamilton Luske, (segment “The Pastoral Symphony”), Bill Roberts, (segment “Rite of Spring”), Paul Satterfield (segment “Rite of Spring”), Ben Sharpsteen
viewed: 01/21/11

It had been years, decades, since I last saw Walt Disney’s Fantasia.  In fact, it may well have been back in its re-release in the mid-1980’s when I last saw it.  When I saw it playing at the Paramount Theater in Oakland, I was eager to get a chance to see it.  However, so were a good many other people, and I wound up sold out of that event.  As much as it would have been nice to see it there on the big screen, the film has been just recently re-issued on DVD by Disney and so watching it at home with the kids was not a bad alternative.

It’s really a remarkable film, by far the most avant-garde that the Disney studio ever attempted, in its non-linear, mostly non-narrative animation set to some of the greatest hits of classical music.  It nearly ruined the studio when it came out because I guess that people had already gotten the notion of what a feature animated film should be like from the studio’s prior output, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Pinocchio (1939), and it wasn’t until the 1960’s that the film started being appreciated properly.  Of course, in the intervening 70 years since it was released, the Disney brand has been further codified and monetized in ways that Walt could never have imagined.  It’s an artifact from the studio’s greatest heyday in talent, as Disney hired off the best animators in Los Angeles, and before greater compromises would be imposed on the process of film-making.

The film’s most avant-garde sequence is its first sequence, set to Bach’s “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor”.  The far more truly avant-garde abstract animator Oskar Fischinger worked with Disney on the early concepts for this sequence.  Fischinger’s work is typically non-repesentational, but Disney’s team cuts a closer to representation, suggesting images of violin bows dipping and zipping.  Still, it was hard work for Clara, who would not have sat through the entire film if it had all been that way.

As the film moves through its different sequences (there are 8 altogether), the film is cut with the explanations by Deems Taylor, some of which are helpful, but are a combination of pandering and condescension, which also is quite dated as well.  Felix thought the film would have been better without the explanations.  I have to agree.

As for favorite pieces, the most conventional is “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” starring Mickey Mouse.  It’s a pretty straight-forward Mickey Mouse cartoon, though, obviously without any speaking.  But it’s also a terrific Mickey Mouse cartoon and it’s one of the film’s signature images, Mickey in his red robe and pointed starry cap.  I also enjoyed “The Dance of the Hours” which is perhaps one of the more straight-forward ones as well.  Clara loved “The Pastoral Symphony” segment, with all its flying Pegasuses, fauns, cherubs, centaurs and Greek Gods.

I was also brought to mind of Bruno Bozzetto’s send up of Fantasia, Allegro Non Troppo, which I’ve seen more recently than I’d seen Disney’s original.  I was struck by how Disney included a Darwinian evolution of life on Earth, ending in the death of the dinosaurs, set to Stravinsky’s “The Rites of Spring”.  In Allegro Non Troppo, Bozzetto has a similar, more successful version set to Ravel’s “Boléro”, which I always thought of as that film’s best sequence.  But it’s been years again since I last saw Bozzetto’s film.  It would be interesting to watch it again, especially having just re-viewed Fantasia.

The kids both liked the film, though as I said, Clara wasn’t digging it right away.  Felix enjoyed it quite a bit, in fact, he liked the more challenging parts of the film perhaps more than the others.  It’s funny but I don’t know if they would have enjoyed the film quite as much had them been much younger.  For me, I actually found myself appreciating it more than I had thought or remembered.  I appreciate the films of Disney, particularly the early ones, but Fantasia does stand alone, while not by any means a perfect film, certainly an interesting and pleasurable one.

The Last Airbender

The Last Airbender (2010) movie poster

(2010) director M. Night Shyamalan
viewed: 01/18/11

Eviscerated as it was by critics, one might wonder why anyone would bother seeing M. Night Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender.  Well, my curiosity, she is a morbid thing.  I’ve watched all of Shyamalan’s films with an increasing anticipation of their burgeoning badness, and having come this far, I can’t seem to help myself, I just keep being curious enough to see them.

What many critics stated, that while Shyamalan had made a number of bad films, this time he had made an utterly awful film.  An abomination.  An atrocity.  And this made it even more intriguing.

San Francisco Chronicle film critic Mick LaSalle listed The Last Airbender as the “worst film of 2010” in an article that he wrote about the dregs of moviegoing for last year.  In that article, he stated how he despises having to suffer through bad movies and doesn’t begin to understand why anyone would bother wasting their time watching a movie that is considered unparalleled garbage.  I disagree with a lot of LaSalle’s opinions about movies, but the question will always be asked, “Why bother seeing this movie if it’s supposed to be so worthless?”

Certainly, some bad movies can be fun.  Some bad movies really do make you feel sapped of life, a waste of one’s time.  Sometimes, like a car crash, you just have to look.  How can you really know unless you’ve seen it yourself?  How can you use it as a point of reference, as it might be useful, if you aren’t speaking from experience?

But really, like I said, it’s a morbid curiosity for me.

And you know, the funny thing?  As bad as The Last Airbender is, and it is indeed bad, it’s not nearly as atrocious as it’s been made out to be.  Now, if I’d paid $12 or so to see it in the theater with 3-D glasses in which its uninspiring effects looked all the more disappointing, I’m sure I’d have held more of a grudge against it.  But frankly, I can name at least five other movies from last year that I would consider even worse, ones I despised more greatly and even regretted having seen even more (Jonah Hex (2010), I’m Still Here (2010), Gulliver’s Travels (2010), Get Him to the Greek (2010), Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010), but let’s not name names).

The thing is that The Last Airbender is such a complex and convoluted, yet not very sophisticated, narrative, a fantasy with an ornate yet hollow backstory, that I don’t think that there could have been a good movie made of the material.  Now Shyamalan did write the script, so he’s certainly responsible for this lame action film however you slice it, it’s not even his worst movie.  For my money, his worst film is Lady in the Water (2006) because it’s such a personal, obnoxious and pretentious, condescending…  I’m not here to defend The Last Airbender, just to give it some context.

Adapted from a Nickelodeon television animated show that was developed by Americans but produced to look like anime, it’s not sacred material.  The story of a fantasy world where there are nations of water, earth, air, and fire, who are held in balance by an “avatar” who went missing 100 years before, it’s not terribly compelling.  Certain members of each tribe can “bend” their element (make it move and shape it like a telekinetic power), but the “avatar” can command all four.  It turns out that he was a kid, trapped in ice for 100 years.  In his absence, the fire nation has taken over the world, throwing things “out of balance”.

Interestingly, he’s a lot like a super-powered Dalai Lama, reborn time and again, recognized by monks and raised from childhood as this powerful holy dude.  If there is some meta reading of this narrative about Tibet’s plight in the world, I’m not sure where to take it.  The Last Airbender was criticized for its casting of non-Asians in roles that were clearly and significantly Asian in the original series.  Why the fire nation is the one group that looks Indian, I don’t begin to know what kind of strange readings are available from that angle.

Anyways, it’s a bad movie.  Too much convoluted story, dull performances, non-engaging characters, and a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, certainly.  What happens to Shyamalan’s career after this?  I find myself asking this after each film of his comes out.  They keep letting him make movies.  He’s even producing others that have his “stamp” on them.  Well, I’m sure he’s not done yet.  But it’s a pretty safe bet that this is the last Last Airbender.

Blank Generation

Blank Generation (1980) movie poster

(1980) director Ulli Lommel
viewed: 01/17/11

While it features Richard Hell and the Voidoids in height of their time performances at CBGB’s and snapshots of late 1970’s Manhattan in its rough-and-tumble charm, Blank Generation isn’t entirely worth the effort to sit through.  Co-written by Hell and director Ulli Lommel and Robert Madero, the bulk of the film is a tired, trying love story between Hell’s character Billy and the beautiful French actress Carole Bouquet as Nada.  He’s a sensitive, talented musician with some capricious whims and she’s a French film-maker/interviewer who is even more capricious.

It would be one thing if this was meant to be a sincere story on its own terms, but the film has some “higher” pretensions as well.  Referencing Godard and interviewing Andy Warhol, Nada is usually armed with a film camera, makes statements to Billy in recorded form, and the film features shots of the video in playback on a television.  Self-reflexive?  Yes.  But to what end?

Ultimately, it’s not atrocious.  In fact, no single part of it is super-bad, but it’s tedious and it’s boring, which filming around the punk scene in late 1970’s New York should be anything but.  Well, this is one of the documents of the era which you can glean if you want, but I don’t particularly recommend it.

The Voidoids tunes are pretty awesome though.


Straight to Hell

Straight to Hell (1987) movie poster

(1987) director Alex Cox
viewed: 01/16/11

A comic, Surrealist homage to the Spaghetti Western starring the likes of Joe Strummer, the Pogues, Elvis Costello, Courtney Love, Grace Jones, Dennis Hopper, and Jim Jarmusch.  All brought to you by director/co-writer Alex Cox (Repo Man (1984) & Sid and Nancy (1986)).  To think that such a film exists is enough argument to see the darn thing.  The flukey weirdness of its creation and existence is perhaps as unusual as the film itself.

Actually, it starts out like a story from which Quentin Tarantino probably glommed a considerable amount.  Three suited bank robbers (Strummer, Dick Rude and Sy Richardson) foul up a crime and then head into the desert with Richardson’s pregnant blond girlfriend (Love).  Which I suppose is Mexico, though it’s filmed in Spain.  They wind up at one of these proverbial ghost towns, which in actuality had been created for a Charles Bronson Spaghetti Western, where they meet the local outlaws/town heads, whose henchmen are the Pogues in Mariachi costumes.  And they drink coffee maniacally.

There is a lot more nonsense than sense throughout, but riffing loosely on the themes and standbys of the genre, it’s entertaining nonsense.  Some of the humor works better than others, and while several actors return from Cox’s earlier and more successful Repo Man, you can almost imagine what this is striving for in the times when it flails more than succeeds.

Of course it all ends in the inevitable shoot-out in which most of the principals are killed.  But beyond that, the film has a wacky spirit, and more than anything, a great cult cast.  It’s really kind of fun and a little better than I’d anticipated.

A welcome anomaly.

Blue Valentine

Blue Valentine (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Derek Cianfrance
viewed: 01/14/11 at the UA Stonestown Twin, SF, CA

While it’s certainly true that not all love stories have happy endings, and perhaps that even most do not, most films about love stories tend to dwell on the manic joys more than on the dissolution of love.  Blue Valentine tries to measure the whole arc of the story of love, casting glances toward the significance and story of life as well.  The lovers are Michelle Phillips and Ryan Gosling, who helped produce this film, an indie flick that gives focus to the good and the bad and which does not end in happiness.

The film begins when the family dog has run off, perhaps an omen or a metaphor for what will happen to the family, to the couple, who has a small child.  The film’s present is about five years into their marriage.  Gosling’s hairline has taken a beating and Williams just seems completely fed up.  But the full breadth of the story evolves through flashbacks, to their meeting, their getting together, and ultimately marrying and having a child together.

The film is very naturalistic, but also features a lot of tight close-ups on Williams and Gosling’s faces, adding to the claustraphobia that Williams’ character is suffering in her life.  Being non-linear, unfolding in pieces, while the story moves to its inevitable break-up and dissolution, it’s not a simple film to piece through.

But the real strengths are its stars.  Williams is beautiful and has the rough role of being the one who falls out of love, can seem bitchy about her unaspiring husband, but she is very good, wending her way through the characters several years.  Gosling is excellent as the sincere, sweet, working class guy who never knew what he wanted until he had his wife and child.  And really, they make the film.

The film does have many moments that feel real and can be very striking.  The scene in which Gosling serenades Williams while she dances in front of a store, strumming his ukulele, singing “You Always Hurt the One You Love” is very sweet and striking.  It was used in its straight-through, uncut self as the trailer for the film, which certainly struck me when I saw it.  Seeing it again in the film, it’s poignant, because they are already very unhappy, we know their future, but here they are in the light flirtations of early romance, utterly charming.

For me, the film worked, and worked well.  Not only can I easily imagine that it’s not going to be for everybody, but I can even imagine that some people who may even be open to this sad, slow, unhappy story may find potential fault with it.  But, like I said, I fall on the side of finding it very moving, fresh, and at times, vivid.