Vanishing on 7th Street

Vanishing on 7th Street (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Brad Anderson
viewed: 08/20/2011

From director Brad Anderson, perhaps best known for The Machinist (2004) in which Christian Bale plays an anorexic freak, comes this horror film of mysterious significance.

We have an urban setting in which in a sudden flash, most everyone disappears, leaving their clothing behind in a puddle where they stood.  Those that are left behind, John Leguizamo,  Thandie Newton, and Hayden Christiansen, seem to have been overlooked because they had an alternate light source with them.  Leguizamo has a head-lamp, Newton a lighter for her cigarette, Christiansen some candles for a romantic encounter that didn’t happen.  What we’ve got here is a sort of classic kind of Twilight Zone scenario.

As the story unfolds, they find themselves running from the shadows…literally.  Darkness is taking over the world, and in the shadows, which creep toward the protagonists or anyone, seek to suck them from their clothes and disappear them too.  They wind up in this rapidly darkening world at a bar whose neon keeps buzzing and whose jukebox keeps grooving by power of its own generator.  Each character has his/her own flashback back-story, each tinged with melodrama and cliche, but enough to give everyone a good emoting each.

1. The film is not that well crafted.  I kept thinking how the mystery and drama kept stuck at a particular spot throughout the film, never rising nor falling in intensity, how fear failed to be evoked, how in better hands, this could have been a better film.

2. The script and characterization, which this minimalist type of film requires to keep you in it, since there are only so many characters,was weak stuff.  Newton’s young mother who has just kicked dope is the dopiest, most amateurish of these characters.  But nobody has a lot to work with.

3. Worst of all perhaps, is the key concept.  I didn’t mind not knowing whether is was aliens or ghosts or some storm or “the rapture” or whatever it was that was happening, but what irked me constantly was that in this film, where the characters have to find any source of light to fend off the darkness (glow tubes, flashlights, flares, lighters, electricity) why doesn’t everyone build a big fire?  Fire is the most primal of lights to fend off the dark, and while not utterly sustainable, probably a lot easier to keep going than some gas-guzzling generator.  Heck, the whole town would burn if you gave it a try.

This film could have been a lot more effective.  In fact, I even think the title could have been better.  It was very flawed in the ways that I’ve detailed here.  But it wasn’t utterly lacking somehow.  There is still some kernel of a good idea below all the mis-steps and poor elements of execution.  I like the notion of a faceless horror, a faceless, unexplained horror.

Good concept, bad script, bad directing, bad logic.

Stake Land

Stake Land (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Jim Mickle
viewed: 08/19/2011

An earnest low-budget Indie post-apocalyptic thriller, Stake Land is no great shakes, but is some pretty decent ones.  It’s a vampire movie that’s more akin to a George A. Romero zombie flick than a vampire film.  While some films play for laughs, some play for scares, some play for social commentary, Stake Land plays for a believability of humanist characters, focusing on the protagonists’ relationships rather than on gore or shocks.

From the beginning, a teenage boy named Martin is rescued from an attack by these zombie-vampires upon his family.  He is the only survivor and winds up teaming up with and learning from a man he calls “Mister” (actor/co-writer Nick Damici).  They are vampire killers, collecting fangs as they go, searching across America, moving northward, to a place less crawling with creeps.  There are worse creeps than the vampires, a cruel band called The Brotherhood, a quasi-religious faction of vampire killers and thugs show that humans are still as bad as any other villain.

Of course, when the leader of the Brotherhood becomes a vampire himself…

As I said, the film is no great shakes, but has a subtle charm, emanating from the characters.  One of the film’s biggest shocks is Kelly McGillis, for whom my mental images are comprised mainly of her from Witness (1985) or Top Gun (1986).  Sure, that was 25 years ago and, sure, she’s in her mid-fifties now, but wow, I wouldn’t have recognized her.  She’s an attractive middle-aged woman, a faux-Grandmother figure to the boy, and another of the film’s qualities, a role for someone of this age, not another half-naked 20-something.  It’s part of the agelessness of cinema, a Dorian Gray-like fixture of beauty kept pristine for eternity, while, in this case, in the real world, we all age something fierce.

Season of the Witch

The Season of the Witch (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Dominic Sena
viewed: 08/17/2011

This may indeed be the worst Nicolas Cage film to date.  And that is saying something.

It’s Uwe Boll bad.

The film I kept thinking of during it was Boll’s In the Name of the King: A Dungeon Siege Tale (2007), which also featured actor Ron Perlman, who is Cage’s burly side-kick in this Dark Ages adventure.  Perlman is no stranger to super-low-budget, direct-to-video fantasy/sci-fi garbage.  He’s also appeared in Mutant Chronicles (2008) and I Sell the Dead (2008).  He’s good and grizzled-looking and buff enough to fit into these types of films as the older, cynical, seen-it-all kind of grouse.  He’s cast to type.  And he apparently has no shame about appearing in bad movies.  But that might have been a sign to Cage that he’s seriously verging on direct-to-video films himself at this point.

The effects are cheap and crappy, creating this Dark Ages scenery and battle sequences, grand scopes with the quality of no budget.

Cage and Perlman are two crusading knights, trouncing happily into battle in the name of the Lord and drinking and merry-making in the many afterglows.  That is, until one raid on a castle begets only women and children as their victims, and they up and quit to Crusades to wander aimlessly abroad.

Little are they aware that the Plague has swept Europe and women everywhere are being denounced as witches and killed.  They are given the quest of taking one particular witch to a monastery for trial and probable death.  They accept because they feel she may not be a real witch (and she reminds Cage of the accusing look of one of the women that he had slain.)  The zealous priest makes them even more suspicious as she tries to curry favor with everyone and accuse the priest of villainies.

Cage as a 14th Century knight is hard enough to swallow, but there are other similarly mis-cast characters who suck any potential realism from this nonsense.  And for a Cage fan, there are no great moments of flair, uniqueness, whimsy, or insanity, only noble duties and broadsword swinging.

I posit that this film ranks right up against The Wicker Man (2006) as the worst Nicolas Cage film.  The Wicker Man, however, has some real weirdness to it that offers more potential at camp and comedy.  Season of the Witch is the kind of film that is amazing to have seen a theatrical release.  It’s cheap and worst-off, it’s pretty uninteresting.

I’ll be waiting for Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012) for more of the bad/good Cage films.  That one looks to be pretty hilarious.

Cedar Rapids

Cedar Rapids (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Miguel Arteta
viewed: 08/15/2011

When I saw trailers for Cedar Rapids, I thought it looked kind of funny.  Middle America business trip, the nebbish Ed Helms lets loose under the tutelage of party-meister John C. Reilly.  It looked silly, sure but it made me chuckle.

Amazing how several months later, watching at home on DVD, I found nary a snigger.

I can’t utterly put my finger on it, but it just clunked for me, scene after scene.  And the story arc, of Helms’ small potatoes salesman, cutting loose from his uninspired life, coveting small potatoes goals, and learning about himself, freeing himself from his oppressive relationship and job…  It’s all so predictable.

What did I see in it in the trailers?  I don’t know.

The Freshman

 

The Freshman (1925) movie poster

(1925) director Fred C. Newmeyer, Sam Taylor
viewed: 08/13/2011

After watching Harold Lloyd’s The Kid Brother (1927), we went on to watch his 1925 film, The Freshman.  It’s another of Lloyd’s most well-known films, his biggest success in the day and one that has endured as well.  While I’m pretty sure that I’d never seen it, parts of it seemed more familiar, so maybe I had at some point.  The kids loved it too.

As everything (almost) in a film more than 80 years old, it’s of a different era.  Set as it is in the world of the college campus, it’s all about the trends of the day.  The kids asked why everyone was wearing these weird little beanie caps.  That’s just what they did back then.

Harold again plays Harold, this time he’s the titular “Freshman”, so excited to be going to college, having watched a film about the bully fun of being a BMOC, he’s taught himself all of the team cheers, has emulated the quirky habits of the film’s star (which include a silly little jig prior to an introductory handshake), and strives to be just like the Most Popular Man on campus, the hero of the football team.

In this sense, things haven’t changed immensely.  Seeking popularity, but being played for a fool, hazing freshmen, the rubes of the campus, and the insane popularity of football.  Of course, Harold is as earnest as they come, gets duped into spending lots of money in trying to grow friends, and tries to host the biggest party shindig.  Mostly, this happens while everyone shines him on.  The coach of the football team even allows him to think he’s part of the team when he’s really only the water-boy.

Of course, this is Hollywood, so you know he’s going to somehow surpass his problems, win the big football game, and get the girl.  And it’s a lot of fun getting there.  While I think I preferred The Kid Brother, the kids hooted with laughter and really enjoyed the football game sequence.  An excellent, fun, funny film, another classic from the silent era, another legend of Hollywood comedy.

The Kid Brother

The Kid Brother (1927) movie poster

(1927) director Ted Wilde, J.A. Howe
viewed: 08/13/2011

In my ongoing quest to expose my kids to a variety of classic, as well as contemporary, cinema soldiered forth to yet another of Silent Film’s great comedians.  We’ve watched a number of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplain films, as well as some Keaton-Fatty Arbuckle shorts, but we hadn’t forayed into the work of Harold Lloyd.  Which is only a little funny in that the one major silent comedy that I saw more than once as a child was Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (1923), which may have been an anomaly based on our local PBS channel in Gainesville, FL in the 1970’s.  But as an adult, and as I’ve developed a greater interest in Silent Film in the past decade, I myself hadn’t revisited his films.

So, on Friday night, we nestled down for The Kid Brother, which I had never seen, but had read that it was one of his better films.  It’s great, actually.  And the kids really liked it, too.

Set before the turn of the 20th century, the story takes place in a small town.  Harold is the “kid brother” to two big burly fellows, smaller still than his father, the town’s sheriff and major figure in the town.  With no mother around, Harold is given the “women’s work” and is considered too little/young for any of the more manly stuff.  When a traveling medicine show comes through town and Harold falls for the young woman traveling with it, it also unleashes the two other members of this show as the villains.  The sheriff has collected money from the townspeople to submit for a big dam project, but then the money goes stolen.   And the sheriff’s rival likes to blame the sheriff.  Harold ends up saving the day.

What was particularly striking to me was some of the camerawork in the film.  In an early scene, when Harold is introduced to the young woman, he climbs a tree as she walks away so that he can shout one more thing to her.  But he keeps having to climb higher as he keeps thinking of things to say.  The camera “climbs” up behind him, giving the vantage further down the slope of the girl ever further in the distance.  It’s a remarkable shot, or series of shots.  And as in this scene, there are a number of scenes in which the camera moves around, which is quite unusual for the period.

Lloyd’s “glasses character” as he is known, perhaps because he’s not as implacable as “Old Stoneface” Keaton nor as winsome as Chaplain’s “Little Tramp”, is given to a far greater range of emotions and as a result, the story seems to have more depth and development.  It does indeed build from a relatively slow beginning to a wonderfully madcap adventure with a number of clever and funny stunts and gags aboard an abandoned ship, trying to retrieve the townsfolk’s money from the big thug.

I really enjoyed it a great deal and the kids did too.  It’s funny how now they don’t even bat an eye at transitioning from a full-color summer action movie like Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) or some of their favorite cartoons like Phineas and Ferb to these movies that are 80 years old,  silent, black-and-white.  I’ve often patted myself on the back about this, but I truly enjoy sharing these experiences with them, especially when they are as satisfying as this one was.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Rupert Wyatt
viewed: 08/13/2011 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a better film than one might expect.  Heck, it might be one of the best summer movies of 2011.  Who’da thunk that?

After Tim Burton tried to re-boot the film and television series in 2001 with Planet of the Apes, it seemed that this franchise would find no foothold in the 21st Century.  When I first heard of this new “re-boot”/prequel, with James Franco to star and a director, Andy Serkis to act in motion-capture as the lead ape Caesar, Rupert Wyatt with whom I was unfamiliar, I saw little if anything to glom onto.  But as the trailers hit the cinemas, I was struck that it looked kind of interesting, none the less so for having many central scenes set in my hometown of San Francisco.  And the kids were interested as well.

When I was a kid, in the 1970’s, I really liked The Planet of the Apes movies/cartoons/television show/comic books.  I had a Dr. Zaius piggy bank, a play-set of mini action figures, and I even named my dog “Zira”, after the Kim Hunter role, the nice female chimpanzee psychiatrist.  That said, it had been a long, long time since I’d watched any of the films except for Burton’s re-make, and I began to simply classify it with the cliches and humor of its most iconic qualities.  I am strangely stirred to revisit the series now.

Rise goes where the films hadn’t before, to the origin of the evolution of the apes and the downfall of the human race and ties them back to the same event, an intended cure for Alzheimer’s  disease,  a wonder drug developed by Franco’s character in an attempt to rescue his father and others from the disease’s ravages.  His tests on chimpanzees leads him to an affected offspring, who he takes into his home and winds up raising as a son.  And the drama develops as this super-smart chimp’s evolved intelligence makes him far more than any primate, though still deeply in between worlds of apes and men.  After an incident in which he attacks to protect a family member, he’s sent to a facility that specializes in primate “care” (more truly primate abuse) and he comes to learn about the nature of his fellow beasts.  Ultimately, there is an uprising, and Caesar uses Franco’s drug to up the intellect of all his fellows.

And it turns out that the medicine, while initially working on Franco’s father, becomes a highly deadly pathogen to humans.

What really added to the interest in this film was that only a month or so ago, we’d watched the documentary Project Nim (2011) about a real chimpanzee who was taken into a home, brought up partially as human, taught to use sign language and who ultimately went on to suffer abuses and abandonment, as well as medical testing, a speck of reality against which this otherwise outlandish science fiction story is set.  If you haven’t seen either, I recommend seeing Project Nim beforehand if you have the time.  I think it really does add some depth to what in reality is a fairly straight-forward science-gone-wrong film.

The special effects really impressed the kids.  For one thing, I think they had a hard time recognizing that the apes were largely digitally created, that these weren’t real chimps acting on film, but especially in the film’s finale, in which the action takes place across San Francisco from Twin Peaks to the cable cars to the final showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge.  Having such familiarity with the bridge, they were really wow’ed by how realistic this ape takeover seemed.  Me, too, I suppose, though I am much more aware of digital effects.

The whole film is just a bit better than I would have expected.  Rupert Wyatt manages the whole in a very competent manner.  As clunky as many films of the summer can be, this one maintained its pace and interest throughout and was surprisingly entertaining.  Adding in that consideration of the real-life touch-point of Project Nim, this turned out to be somewhat thoughtful, as well.  I don’t know if it would have been as much so without the factual story of a chimpanzee underlying the experience of this one.  But it was, indeed, one of the better flicks of the summer.

Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Zack Snyder
viewed: 08/12/2011

Lustrous video game-like action/fantasy nonsense.  With a dose of sexist, maybe even misogynistic pedophilia.

From director/co-writer Zack Snyder, of 300 (2006), Watchmen (2009), and the somewhat unlikely Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010), Sucker Punch may be his purist vision to date.  Certainly it’s the first one that he’s produced that is not adapted from another original source.  That said, it could easily have been a comic book or a video game or any number of things.

It’s the story (sort of a story) of Babydoll (the striking Emily Browning), who is put in a mental institution by her abusive step-father.  But like the trials and tribulations that her character in Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004) faces, she’s in some far-out fantasy land of reality, in which the girls at the institution are forced into semi-prostitution, at least forced to “perform” dances for clients.  But when Babydoll goes into a strange dream state in order to dance, she enters a further series of worlds in which she and her gal pals battle a plethora of video game-like villains, from samurais to a dragon to some semi-demon-Nazis.

There is, in a sense, an attempt at portraying these battles and this escapist dream ass-kicking as a form of female empowerment.  But while they swoop and slash and kick ass in fantasy, Babydoll (in her schoolgirl mini skirt and pony tails), apparently dances a beguiling, mesmerizing performance.  Actually, maybe most interestingly, we are never shown these performances and only can imagine them.

Perhaps, one could posit that this is not meant as a girl-power empowerment, but rather a critique of that.  These scantily clad, exotic dancer mental institute internees only escape in some imaginary space while they act in degrading performances in “real life”.  But Snyder’s potential criticism remains grossly undercut by his one great strength as a director: the ability to craft wild, fantastical action set pieces with powerful aesthetic panache.

Are we not supposed to enjoy watching the diminutive mini-skirted blond leap and bound, kick and kill, slash and weave?  What is the point of watching all this wonderfully crafted, digitized, fantasy action nonsense if it’s not for our visual pleasure?  Are we not supposed to be titillated by Babydoll?

It’s the crazy thing about this film, which looks really cool, is that it feels like pedophilic voyeurism.  Maybe it feels that way because that is what it blatantly is.  Maybe the only ones of us who are affected by the potential criticism are the ones of us who sit through the film both impressed with the scene but vaguely disgusted as well.

As a film, it’s high-action nonsense.  It doesn’t make sense, really.  Looking closer at the general narrative it becomes less and less of anything sensible or logical.  It’s a pure visual experience, crafted by a talented team of craftspeople, evoking anime, manga, video games, and more…but a level of disgust.

Battle: Los Angeles

Battle: Los Angeles (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Jonathan Liebesman
viewed: 08/10/2011

Battle: Los Angeles is more a war film at heart than a science fiction film, though of course it is both.  Director Jonathan Liebesman takes the Black Hawk Down (2001) perspective of soldiers in an enemy-controlled urban environment, struggling for escape and survival.  Of course, this is LA, not Mogadishu.  And these aren’t warlords or mercenaries, but a militarized alien race, coming in to exterminate the humans.

There has been an insurgence of aliens in the theaters in 2011.  And largely, they’re here to kill and/or take our natural resources.

The film has a lot of energy.  It seems to be hurtling along almost all of the time, with shaky hand-held cameras and quick cuts, lots of explosions.  Unfortunately, it has a lot of cliches as well.  Maybe Liebesman figured if it kept moving forward, it wouldn’t give you time to dwell on the government issue Marines, multicultural though they are, who could have come from any war movie.

Actually, the film portrays the military in a very noble light.  They are the heroes here, led by Aaron Eckhart, and each one performs with guts and integrity.  Not that they shouldn’t be portrayed that way, but Battle: Los Angeles could well be used as a recruitment piece.  In fact, when a young boy’s father dies, Eckhart consoles him and calls him “a little Marine”, and the way it plays out, it seems clear that that little boy will enlist when he reaches the age.

In this sense, the film is an escapist piece of patriotism.  Using the visceral techniques of The Hurt Locker (2008) or Black Hawk Down, the Liebesman tries to add a level or realism to the film.  In the War films, this is intended to create the sensation of “being there”, the tension, the noise, the violence, the fear.  It adds empathy to an outsider’s perception of the lives of soldiers in intensely hostile environments.  And Liebesman tries to add that verisimilitude to the alien invasion film, what it would be like on the ground with the soldiers fighting to protect American soil.  I get it.  I think.  The idea.

Strange Illusion

Strange Illusion (1945) movie poster

(1945) director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 08/09/2011

After revisiting director Edgar G. Ulmer’s no budget noir masterpiece, Detour (1945), I queued up another noir of his, released the same year, the interesting-sounding, Strange Illusion.

Ulmer, who started out as a set designer for Fritz Lang, among others, made it to Hollywood, but rarely worked with a real budget.  Strange Illusion is similarly bare-bones, but also more interesting than a lot of movies made with higher budgets.

It’s the story of a young collegian, Jimmy, who revisits his home after his father’s sudden death in a mysterious car accident.  He has a vision of a dark figure trying to step into the picture and suspects that his father’s death may have been murder.  The film channels Hamlet and is rife with Freudian themes, especially Oedipal lust.  For his mother is being pursued by a gentleman, and Jimmy finds himself in a mental institution, trapped by a sinister psychiatrist.

For its low budget, the dream sequences, including the scene of the car accident, have real flair.  It doesn’t have the mean, lean perfection nor significant performances to rival the much richer Detour.  But it is an interesting film, in no small part to its low budget and high capabilities of Edgar Ulmer.  I’m queueing up more of his films, as I type.  So to speak.