The Adjustment Bureau

The Adjustment Bureau (2011) movie poster

(2011) director George Nolfi
viewed: 09/18/2011

Suspension of disbelief.  Something that is necessary in viewing almost any narrative movie, extra necessary in stories of science fiction or fantasy.

Dragons?  Aliens? Weird science? Ewoks?  Everyone has their own level of willingness to just let the story take them in and play along.  It’s part of how narrative films work, pull you in, make you forget all of the artifice, make you forget yourself and simply go with the flow of the narrative.  And hopefully enjoy.

By most measurements, The Adjustment Bureau doesn’t feature lots of wild effects, alien creatures, lots of FX.  It’s mostly a thriller by its idea.  The idea is adopted from a story by science fiction great, Philip K. Dick.  It’s about an agency that controls all events, powerfully manipulating everyone in a variety of ways to make everything happen in a predetermined order.  In the movie, these men all wear suits and fedora-style hats and answer to “the chairman”, who dictates the whole shebang.

Matt Damon stars as the guy who meets a woman (Emily Blunt) accidentally but falls for her big time.  Then after one of the agents misses a cue, Damon meets Blunt again, in a great happenstance of fortuity.  But this is a predetermined world and so the agents descend upon Damon, take the girl’s phone number from him, burn it, tell him about how the whole world works and that he’s not allowed to tell anyone about it.

But of course, Damon is really in love and has to buck the system.  And the agent who screwed up, also seems to sympathize with him, offers him some help.  This doesn’t sit well with the rest of the agents.  Drama and action ensues.

On the bright side, Blunt and Damon have charm.  I’ve never really liked Blunt in anything before, but here she is charming.  And Damon, while not my type, is a very likable fellow.  So, they’re good.

What is not good is the ridiculous premise.  If these guys have all this power, to appear here and there, make little part of a floor jump up to trip Damon, all kinds of knowledge and tricks, it is so ridiculous that they need to expose themselves to Damon in order to take his wallet out, steal the girl’s number, and burn it.  They freeze the whole rest of the world to do this.  With all their omnipotence, they aren’t so all effective.

The metaphors aren’t too hard to read.  Free will?  Predestination? An all-controlling paternal power who dictates the whole thing, controls the whole thing?  I get it.

But I kept finding frustration with the whole concept and the explanations.  I was constantly thinking about the cheap artifice of the narrative, the opposite of a successful story.  What I faced throughout was a suspension of belief.  And really, for all the rest of the thing to work, I needed to be in it, not outside of it.

But then again, maybe that was how it was meant to be.

The Bad Seed

The Bad Seed (1956) movie poster

(1956) director Mervyn LeRoy
viewed: 09/17/2011

Of all the films that I’ve watched with the kids, The Bad Seed, while totally rated G and featuring a starring role of an 8 year old girl, is perhaps one of the most perverse, shocking, and creepy films that I’ve watched with them.  Of course, I knew that in advance.  I remember seeing this film for the first time when I was a kid, not as young as Clara or even Felix perhaps, but I was well aware of how effective The Bad Seed really is.

And it still is so.  Very much so.  It made a massive impression on Clara in particular.

She followed the story through in detail and recounted it in said detail.

It’s the story of a serial killer, an eight year old serial killer.  The story, adapted from a novel and a play (also adapted from the novel), turns on the popular psychology of the 1950’s, the concepts of nature vs. nurture, of a genetic trait of evil that overpowers any good happy, all-American wholesome family quality that has been in place for the little prim blond psychopath.  Really, it’s a super subversive concept, especially set in the American small town ideals of the 1950’s, that evil could come in such a seemingly proper and pretty little girl like Rhoda.  Evil, and a very creepy evil at that, teems in the performance of Patty McCormack.  She’s really convincingly deranged but also exhibiting the outer appearance of all goodness and light.

There are a couple of scenes in particular, when Rhoda switches from either blase indifference or treacly sweetness to hardened, fierce viciousness that really struck Clara.  When LeRoy (Henry Jones) jibes at her about her guilt, though he’s teasing cruelly, he hits a little too close to the truth and Rhoda snaps.  I said to Clara that he “touched a nerve” and that really struck her, how vividly McCormack played the little girl with a deep, dark side.

The cast is terrific, including Rhoda’s mother (Nancy Kelly), their landlady (Evelyn Varden), and others.  It has that tenor of a play from the 1950’s, the explication of narrative, the social issues, the dramatic tension, and that all the violence happens off-screen.  It’s none the less impactful for all that.  Of course it’s all handled deftly by director Mervyn Leroy (I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), Scarface (1932)).

It’s funny that even the ending, which was apparently altered for the movie by the Hays Code from Hollywood, in which the mother dies and little Rhoda keeps on killing, to her punishment in a true “hand of God” moment in which she is struck down by a lightning bolt is utterly perverse.  This is still an 8 year old girl, un-redeemable and as wholly evil as she is depicted, getting blasted to bits in the ending.

The film is really top notch.  And subversive as it is in its potential critique of what lies lurking beneath the most innocent of surfaces of the 1950’s, it’s still tremendously effective today.  It’s still a very perverse thing in many ways, darker even in its comic element than a lot of other things that we could be watching or reading.  It made a big impression.

Your Highness

Your Highness (2011) movie poster
Your Highness (2011) movie poster

(2011) director David Gordon Green
viewed: 09/16/2011

Starring Danny McBride (who can be very funny), James Franco (who can be very funny), Natalie Portman (who can do a lot of things), and Zooey Deschanel (who is typically annoying) and directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express (2008)), Your Highness is set in a fantasy world of kings and wizards and tries to pitch a raunchy outrageous modern comedy.

Funny it is not.

Actually, it’s tremendously lame and outright awful.

It’s less the actors than it is the script, which is a total pile of crap.  Really, all things considered, I’d rather not waste another word on this movie and would like to try to annul it from my memory.

Nightmare Alley

Nightmare Alley (1947) movie poster

(1947) director Edmound Goulding
viewed: 09/10/2011

Nightmare Alley is a film noir set in the milieu of the sideshow, phony mentalists, and other grifters.  Based upon the excellent 1946 novel by William Lindsay Gresham, it’s unique in its setting and characters in the noir realm.  But unlike Tod Browning’s classic pre-code film, Freaks (1932), Nightmare Alley, the film, though edgy for its time in many ways, goes nowhere near the outre weirdness of the sideshow depicted in that film, nor the more perverse, Freudian depths of the novel.  Not only does it have the “Hollywood ending” tacked lamely on, but it softens many of the edgier elements of the story, as one would typically expect.

It’s one of the anticipated short-comings of reading a good book first and then seeing the film.  But taking that into account, it’s still a pretty good movie.

Tyrone Power stars as Stanton Carlisle, the young man in the sideshow who yearns to become a mentalist (mind-reader), especially after learning the tricks of the trade from the expert Zeena (Joan Blondell) and her alcoholic wreck of a husband.   They had once been big time, and Carlisle likes the looks of that, as well of the attractive Zeena, who he starts seeing on the side.  In the book, he intentionally gives the DT-enthralled husband rubbing alcohol to drink, hoping to knock him out so that he can tryst with Zeena.  In the film, it’s an accidental mix-up, which leads to the husband’s death.  Still it hangs over Carlisle internally.

He starts learning Zeena’s coded system for signaling a blindfolded mentalist the cues he needs to “read minds” and “tell the future” but he decides to make off with the young, gorgeous, good-hearted Molly (Coleen Gray) and make it big.

The novel is an excellent crime story, much more lurid, dark, deeply Freudian, cynical of religion, magic, everything.  And the book has the killer ending, pulling the story full-circle from its beginning introduction of “the geek”.  I was actually surprised that the film had that final scene, poignant as it is.  Only the film has a bit more, finalizing a hopeful redemption, the classic “Hollywood ending”.  Still, the film does introduce “the geek”, the man so low in life so inveterate an alcoholic, that he bites the heads off chickens is only a breath away from death or the madhouse.

And the film does have a darkness, perhaps even great perversity.  It doesn’t go as far as the book.  How could it in 1947?  Maybe in 1931.  Still, it’s a good noir.   I do recommend it.  But I recommend the novel even more so.

Paul

Paul (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Greg Mottola
viewed: 09/08/2011

Appallingly lame, Paul is an only partially-assed comedy from the director of quite funny Superbad(2007) and the middling Adventureland (2009).  The film stars Simon Pegg and Nick Frost, who also wrote the script, as two English geeks on their lifelong fantasy trip to Comic-Con and then a road trip in an RV to American sites of interest for alien aficionados.

The stumble upon the real deal, an alien named Paul who is voiced by Seth Rogan.  He’s supposed to be funny.  They also pick up Kristen Wiig, who plays a coddled, shut-in Christian, but who falls for Pegg.  They are chased by the feds, played by Jason Bateman, Bill Hader, and Joe Lo Truglio.  Who are also supposed to be funny.  Wiig, who has proven her comedic skills in Bridesmaids (2011), is also supposed to be funny.   But really, nobody has much to work with.

The film flails and is tiresome, making me yearn for Roger the alien from American Dad!, who is 1000 times funnier in any given episode than anything in this weak and forgettable “comedy”.

Trollhunter

 

Trollhunter (2010) movie poster

(2010) director André Øvredal
viewed: 09/08/2011

A sort of Norwegian The Blair Witch Project (1999) about giant mountain trolls, Trollhunter isn’t utterly run-of-the-mill.  It’s neither completely comic nor completely serious, as it delves into the secret hidden creatures of Norway’s beautiful, isolated outlying wilderness.  And a little bit of Norse mythology to boot.

The “found footage” faux documentary thing is even more tired that modern 3-D.  But that’s how they went about this one.  It opens with some inter-titles saying that this was literally “found” footage, that no one knows what happened the the college students who find the titular, lonesome troll-hunter and follow him around watching him dispatch the nocturnal giants.

They either turn to stone or explode when hit with UV rays, which is the primary weapon of the troll-hunter.  And there is a government conspiracy to keep all these creatures under wraps.

Really, it takes little to no questioning of these plot points to get through the plot holes and concepts.  But what do you want with a movie about giant trolls?  They are all kind of throw-back designs from illustrations of trolls (they are not the big-bright-haired kewpie doll trolls…though that could have been hilarious.)  Actually, it’s kind of interesting how the films was well-received in its homeland.  Because it certainly is an oddity of some proportion here.

The landscapes are rugged, wild, amazing.  It does work as a bit of a coup for the tourism boards of Norway.  I don’t need a troll, but I’d love to see some of those mountains, rivers, and waterfalls.

13 Assassins

13 Assassins (2010) movie poster

(2010) director Takashi Miike
viewed: 09/05/2011

It’s no Seven Samurai (1954).  But it is a samurai film cast from a mold not unlike that classic Akira Kurosawa film.  But this is no Kurosawa film.  This is a Takashi Miike film.  However, though it is a Takeshi Miike film, it bears very little of Miike’s outre weirdness, iconoclasm, or shock value.  It’s a much more mainstream affair.

Miike does have a broader range, not all of his films are nutso-crazo genre mash-ups, but certainly, his best work, or at least most provocative work is something much more akin to exploitation.  He’s channeled Hitchcock (Audition (2000)), gone totally over the top in Ichi the Killer (2001), gone to places that most Freudians could not have dreamed of (Visitor Q (2001)), and has even made kids movies (The Great Yokai War (2005)).

So, who is to doubt him going for a more “classic” style, an epic samurai flick, with mere hints of the bizarre?  Well, no one puts Miike in a corner.

13 Assassins got reasonable reviews, but it’s nothing spectacular.  Of all the samurai films that I’ve seen, the best ones have a keen visual style, are often societal critiques.  But Miike’s film doesn’t really resonate as political material for me.  And visually, it’s nothing special.

Actually, at this point, maybe Miike is past his prime.  Perhaps like so many outsider film-makers, success earns more money and freedom, but winds up pushing them into more watered down versions of their strengths.  Maybe this is the kind of movie that Miike always dreamed of making.  Sadly, it’s just not all that good.  It’s not terrible by any means, but it’s unoriginal, unspectacular, lacking in verve.

The War of the Worlds

The War of the Worlds (1953) movie poster

(1953) director Byron Haskin
viewed: 09/02/2011

Like Ray Harryhausen, George Pal was a film-maker, animator, special effects specialist who put a huge stamp on his films and transcends the auteur-theory.  Above his effects and animations, Pal was also a producer, so looking at his work fits closer perhaps than Harryhausen to the sense of “authorship” usually applied to directors, though often attached to writers and producers as well.  But like Harryhausen, a lot of his work was stop-motion animation, and he was a friend of Harryhausen’s.

After watching 1960 version of H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, it struck me that it would be fun to watch his seminal version of Wells’ The War of the Worlds, a film, iconic as it is, I had never actually seen.  But then we watched Tim Burton’s send-up/homage of the alien invasion film, Mars Attacks! (1996), which in retrospect is really templated on Wells’ classic novel.   I was struck by the fact that Burton’s film referenced a number of films that the kids had never seen;  not that they would need to to appreciate it, but I thought it would be cool to go to one of the original science fiction films of the 1950’s, a theme that I’ve been digging on for several years.  But further still, I’ve gotten a real interest in the “alien invasion” film.

Modernized from the Victorian era to the 1950’s, George Pal and Byron Haskin’s The War of the Worlds was a breakthrough in pop cinema for Hollywood, and as dated as it would appear culturally and effects-wise, it’s almost quite literally the template of the modern summer block-buster.  Actually, I was surprised, perhaps unnecessarily so, by how much Steven Spielberg revisited the film in his version of War of the Worlds (2005), how one of the best scenes in the 1952 film was also one of the best scenes in the 2005 version.  I was actually eager to revisit it as well.

The film opens with newsreel-styled reports about Mars and how life there did exist, but that their natural resources were spent, that in all of the galaxy, only Earth offered the fecundity that they sought.  And when the credits burst onto the screen, the film itself bursts into rich Technicolor.

Simple, small-town America, in the outlying regions of Southern California, sees a strange meteorite crash outside of town.  They all rush out to it, including visiting scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester (played by Gene Barry) and fawning post-grad Sylvia van Buren (Ann Robinson).  Barry is actually almost comic in his delivery, hokey, campy acting, but still, the film works because of the action, the spaceships, and the aliens.  It turns out that the meteorite is really a Martian ship, quite clearly set on the destruction of humanity, blasting down those who “come in peace”.  Soon, there are thousands of these ships all over the planet, wreaking havoc, and quite likely to take over the world.

When even the nuclear option fails America, things are looking dire.  But of course, assuming you know the story, the aliens are brought down by Earth’s smallest living things, diseases, microorganisms.

For this The War of the Worlds, this whole experience takes a Christian slant.  These microorganisms are God’s creatures, sanctuary is found in churches, and a big part of American idealism is tied to religion.  Whether this seam came from writer Barré Lyndon, director Bryon Haskin, or George Pal, I don’t know, but it’s actually surprisingly pervasive.

The alien ships, made to look like manta rays with cobra head periscopes, are the most iconic of the film’s images.  But the film pulls off some other iconic images that have also been copied ever and since, namely the shots of deserted downtown Los Angeles, with Barry running through the empty streets, with newspapers and other detritus blowing by like so much tumbleweeds.  Also, the slow “march” of the ships, laying waste to all the best that American heroism, nobility, and technology can offer, is still effectively eerie.  In some ways, even more so than in many more modern films, even knowing what the outcome will be.

The great scene, in the abandoned farmhouse, where Barry and Robinson cower and hide from the probing eye of the alien ship, is also very effective.  And when the Martian sneaks up on Ann and lays his three suction-cup fingers on her shoulder, her turn and scream is just pure classic Americana.  Another iconic moment repeated and copied ad nauseum and beyond.

The effects are really striking, even when you can see the wires holding up with spacecraft.  Even the sort of dated image of the alien physique, the low-tech nature of the effects, it still made the kids comment that it was “creepy”.

Really, when you get down to it, this is just plain great stuff.  Another film enjoyed by all, inspiring much else in our future viewing queue.  It’s brilliant.

Hobo with a Shotgun

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Jason Eisenson
viewed: 08/28/2011

I know, I know, what does one expect from a film called Hobo with a Shotgun?  A film that was “adapted” from a fake trailer that accompanied the Quentin Tarantino/Robert Rodriguez Grindhouse (2007) double feature.  A trailer that won a contest to be included therein.

The answer is the hope of something silly, visceral, fun.  The whole Grindhouse concept, throw-back action genre films to the days of the drive-in’s the low-budget, high entertainment exploitation flicks of the 1970’s and 1980’s.  That is what Grindhouse was meant to be.   Although even at the time, only Robert Rodriguez’s Planet Terror (2007) seemed to be a worthwhile effort.  Even Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007) flailed at the attempt.  But Grindhouse has continued to beget offspring.  Rodriguez returned with Machete (2010), his own adaptation from his own fake trailer.  While I didn’t find it to be up to the snuff of Planet Terror, it had its moments.  Rodriguez seems attuned to the genre more so than some others.

One thing I will credit Hobo with a Shotgun with is that it sticks to its guns (yuk yuk) with its vigilante hero and isn’t steeped in irony and self-awareness so common to these post-modern attempts at re-engaging past styles and genres.

That said, it’s also pretty awful on its own.  We’ve got Rutger Hauer, once the strikingly handsome Teutonic star, playing a grizzled, wrinkled rag of clothes hobo.  And he’s not bad in it.  What annoyed me was the direction and art design, all the colored shots, blues and greens, I guess meant to evoke neon reflecting, infusing images,  And the whole thing was just clunky and not really any level of gleeful fun.

I don’t know what I was really expecting or wanting from this film.  Maybe that is the question that I should really be asking myself.  I mean, I did queue it up.  I did watch it.  Now in retrospect, outside of scratching it off my list, the whole thing was a bit of a poorly thought-out waste of time and effort.

Mars Attacks!

Mars Attacks! (1996) movie poster

(1996) director Tim Burton

viewed: 08/27/2011

When Tim Burton released Mars Attacks! back in 1996, he still showed a great deal of promise as one of the most interesting directors in mainstream Hollywood.  Coming off his second Batman film, Batman Returns (1995), still visually inventive, his previous film had been Ed Wood (1994), arguably his best work.

And when I saw it in the theaters during its initial run, I considered myself a Tim Burton fan. And I liked it at the time.  It wasn’t brilliant.  It wasn’t classic.  It had some great gags, some great art design, lots of celebrity cameos, a ton of retro ironic humor/homage, but at best, it was good.  Not great.  It seemed to feed upon some of his prior films, notably Beetlejuice (1988), re-purposing not only characters and gags, but many actors as well.

Looking back now, it seems that his slide into perpetually derivative content blossomed after this film.  While he’d “re-booted” Batman and adapted an obscure collection of bubblegum cards into an alien invasion film, he would go on to re-invent Washington Irving (Sleepy Hollow (1999)), unsuccessfully re-boot a retro-1970’s franchise (Planet of the Apes (2001), redo Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), and adapt stage-musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007).  His affinity for re-inventing pre-existing narratives, characters, and franchises is only second to his affinity for using Johnny Depp.

But while I’ve soured on Tim Burton, I still see most of his films.  And when the kids and I ended up watching Beetlejuice, I started considering his other films that they might enjoy.  We saw Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985), which they liked, though not as well.  I thought since it reminded me in several ways of Beetlejuice, Mars Attacks! might be fun.

It was.

It’s a confection of humor, but it has some pretty awesome gags.  The Martians, who speak in voices that sound like “Aack Aack, Ack Ack Ack Aaack!”, then chasing humans down with ray guns using a translator to say “Stop! We come in peace!  We are your friends!”, having such contempt for human life that they kill indiscriminately and sew heads onto dogs and a dog’s head onto a human body.

Really, it’s a lampoon take on H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.  With a tip of the homage/ironic hat to the George Pal-produced version of that film from 1952 as well as Earth vs. the Flying Saucers (1956) and much more.  I’ve read that originally Burton wanted to use stop-motion animation for the aliens as a further acknowledgement of Ray Harryhausen, whose flying saucers from the 1956 film are specifically recognized.  Budget drove them to computer animation, and it’s still a great style.

The aliens, with their green skin, bulbously brained crania, bulging eyes, and skull-like jaws, are a perfect cartoon of old-fashioned extra-terrestrial life.  They are both comic and creepy.

The finale, in which the aliens are defeated by the yodeling voice of Slim Whitman (instead of common microorganisms as in The War of the Worlds), is some great sublime joke, as sublime as the simplistic solution that Wells had dreamed up, but sort of a classic end-gag.  With the parallel music of Tom Jones’ “It’s Not Unusual”,  to which the planet is rescued and the forest animals all convene, it’s really has some funny stuff in it, limited as it is.

The film actually depicts perhaps Burton’s most fervent misanthropy of any of his films.  Champion of the outsider, the dopey doughnut shop employee (Lukas Haas), the dark solitude of the president’s daughter (Natalie Portman), or occasional others, the film is gleeful in its punishment of the greedy, rich, selfish, self-absorbed, and “small-minded”.  Really of all of his films, this one might be the most far-reaching in its critique of the elements of culture and society that perturb Burton, rather than his consistent appreciation of the people who are cool but out of step with the rest of the world.

The kids quite enjoyed it.  Clara actually wanted to watch it again, liked it enough to watch it again.  It opened for me a further interest in the “alien invasion” film, something percolating within me for a short while of late.  It also made me think that I would like the kids to see some of the films that inspired or influenced this parody/satire/salute.

Burton is an enigma of sorts, but more than anything a bit of a disappointment.   Not long after Mars Attacks! I had written him off of ever making a truly great film.  Still, his work can be fun, is often beautifully designed, occasionally can be quite funny and piquant.  But more often than not, not as good as it could/should be.