Puss in Boots

Puss in Boots (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Chris Miller
viewed: 10/29/2011 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Puss in Boots was not necessarily the most likely of films to which I would bring the kids.  I’ve been pretty disdainful of the Shrek series of films of which this movie is a spin-off/prequel.  And 3-D, another bane of my film-going existence has started to be shown at the neighborhood movie house, CineArts @ the Empire Theater in West Portal.  I’d actually been quite grateful to them for showing only 2-D versions of many of this fad of greed films.  But starting just recently, they now do both formats, which is good for them, I suppose.  Bad for me if timing, being what it is, results in seeing 3-D versions that are currently $3.50 more expensive per ticket.

But the kids were interested and what with us having survived the dearth of kid-friendly movies that follows the end of the summer, I was more willing to give it a go.

Voiced by Antonio Banderas, Puss was actually one of the more amusing characters of the Shrek franchise.  A sort of Spanish Pepe Le Pew with a little more Zorro thrown in.  In this film, he’s teamed with Kitty Southpaw (voiced by Salma Hayak) and  Humpty Alexander Dumpty (voiced by Zach Galifianakis).  Kitty is the female equivalent to Puss, just as sassy and tough.  Humpty is a fretting bulb of an egg, a childhood friend of Puss’ who betrayed him in the past.  They all team up to try to get magic beans to get the goose that lays the golden eggs in a crafty scheme.  There are also Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris) who are scheming to do the same.

Frankly, the film isn’t nearly as funny as it could or should be.  The animation is of a high quality but I’ve never really liked the aesthetic of humans in the Shrek series.  They are stiff and waxen and hyper-real but still cartoons in a style that I can only say sort of gives me the creeps.

But for whatever reason, I found the film more tolerable than I was expecting.  The kids all enjoyed it (we had an additional 7 year old in tow).

Like the movie Rango (2011), though decidedly less so, a lot of the visuals play with the aesthetics and stereotypes of the Spaghetti Western.  Puss in Boots, however, has even less of an agenda of being anything beyond a pretty straightforward kiddie movie.  I tend to feel that animation always has such potential for the unusual or bizarre, and so many creative people are needed to screw in an animated light bulb, that it’s quite disheartening to see one that lacks wit and verve.  Maybe it was just the lack of Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy’s characters that allowed this film to seem less annoying to me (than its Shrek predecessors).  I don’t know.

House of Wax

House of Wax (1953) movie poster

(1953) director André de Toth
viewed: 10/29/2011

The 1953 re-make of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) features Vincent Price, reprising the role of the mad Waxworks artist and whereas the original was shot in an innovative but short-lived 2 strip Technicolor process, House of Wax features what was then another new development in the world of the movies: 3-D.

Unlike the contemporary 3-D, which I’ve come to resent greatly, the original 3-D era still has significant charm to it, albeit somewhat ironically.  Actually, the elements of 3-D that stand out in viewing this non-3-D DVD experience of it are the film titles, the can can dancers and the very campy fun show paddleball man who acts as a barker outside the “House of Wax” to get viewers to pay to come in.    Actually, Price even has a somewhat self-aware ironic comment on the showbiz aspect of that.

The film starts off as a pretty straightforward re-make.  It even features a number of moments and gags straight from the original, occasionally even word for word.  But then it becomes clear where the differences are employed.  For one thing, the original was set in the then present of 1933.  House of Wax resets itself in the Victorian era.  And Fay Wray’s fast-talking flapper reporter is swapped out for a cutesy blond victim played by Carolyn Jones (Morticia from TV’s The Addams Family).  Actually, it picks up a bit more comedy elements but also it foregrounds the more gruesome aspects.

Whereas the horrible ghoul who robs the morgue of bodies for the waxwork only shows up in shadow and then and then the reveal of his face at the end is quite powerful, the remake gives a lot of “face time” to the ghoul.  Clara even noted that the earlier film didn’t show any murders.

When asked about which of the films they preferred, Felix said he liked the original and Clara said she liked the re-make.  Of course, when pressed neither gave much in the way of reasoning for these choices.  But they both enjoyed the films quite well.

For me, the earlier film has more strangeness, partly to its cinematography and Technicolor, partly to its racier qualities.  In Mystery of the Wax Museum, one of the assistants is a junkie and referred to as such, pressed into detox under police pressure and interrogation.  It also has an interesting aside about bootlegging.  In the re-make, the character is a drunk, undergoing the DT’s.   House of Wax has its charms, its own charms as well as its borrowed charms, the best of which are Price and Jones.  It’s also quite funny how the tough 1950’s-style coppers are in their Victorian garb.  And that ping ponging paddleball.  But I still agree with my younger self and prefer the original.

Mystery of the Wax Museum

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) movie poster

(1933) director Michael Curtiz
viewed: 10/28/2011

The fact that Mystery of the Wax Museum was an old favorite from childhood probably says a lot about me as a kid.   It was my favorite of the “Wax Museum” movies.  Though I knew that it starred Fay Wray, most famous for her role as the plaything of  King Kong (1933), and that I recognized the name of Lionel Atwill as another actor who showed up in a number of these movies, I wasn’t at that time all that familiar with directors and wouldn’t have appreciated that this was also a film by Michael Curtiz.

Only last year I discovered another of Curtiz’s great early films, Doctor X (1931), which also featured Fay Wray, Lionel Atwill, and also the very cool 2-strip Technicolor, one of the earliest forms of color movies.  Apparently, both of those films even in their current DVD releases still lack restoration to the fullness of the two strip Technicolor technique.  I still think it has great charm.

Mystery of the Wax Museum also has great charm and not just because of the color.  Fay Wray has a great role as the fast-talking reporter who susses out the scheme.  The scheme, of course, is that the new wax museum in New York features corpses, dipped in wax, corpses made (by killing), corpses stolen, corpses on display.  Of course, it goes back to an earlier time, when the great waxwork artist played by Atwill made wax figures entirely out of wax until his unscrupulous partner set the place ablaze to collect on the insurance money and to leave him for dead.

Really, it’s a more elaborate sort of Phantom of the Opera.

With cinematography by Karl Freund, the film reeks of atmosphere in its luridly lush strange coloration.  It’s got great wit in parts as well, particularly in a sight-gag about corpses rising in the morgue because of the embalming fluid in them.  Only the next one that rises is the ghoul who steals the bodies away.  And it has the great ending with the villain’s “face” (of wax) is beaten to bits to reveal his horribly disfigured visage.

The kids enjoyed it a good deal.  Enough so that they were keen to watch the A-side of this DVD, the 1953 re-make of the film entitled House of Wax, starring Vincent Price.  Which was then again re-made a few years ago with Paris Hilton.  But that is definitely something for another time.

Real Steel

Real Steel (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Shawn Levy
viewed: 10/23/2011

The “feel good” robot boxing movie of 2011.

Absurdly chock-full of cliche, sentiment, and sappy music, Real Steel didn’t look like a good bet.  It’s a boxing movie, made along the lines of genre staples, only this time the combatants are big robots.  Seeing the trailer over the summer, the kids seemed interested, though I grimly winced and hoped that this wouldn’t be something we’d have to see.  But then it got some pretty good reviews and I thought we’d give it a shot.

Loosely adapted from a Richard Matheson short story (and eventual episode of The Twilight Zone original series, “Steel”), the film opens in the near future (near enough to look exactly like our present) in which boxing has become too brutal for humans, so to allow for endless carnage, humanity has turned the WWE into the WRB (World Robot Boxing) league.  Despite that rather tenuous connection to the source material, you’d have been hard pressed to have made the association.

Hugh Jackman, a former boxer, now underground robot boxer owner, is shown on his way to a rodeo operated by a former opponent.  He sets his robot to wrestle a bull and his robot gets trashed.  Jackman is also a deadbeat dad, only his ex-girlfriend, mother of his 11 year old son (played by Dakota Goyo), has died, leaving him with the opportunity to hand the boy off to the boy’s aunt.  Well, Jackman, who has no use for a kid, manages to wrangle more money from the family but winds up with the boy through the summer.

One more robot down, creditors galore, he and the boy break into a junk yard to find pieces to build a new robot.  But the boy finds an old early generation sparring ‘bot called Atom, who turns out to be more than the sum of his parts (and some leftover parts from the two previous robots).  Atom can “shadow” someone, mimicking their moves, but more than that, he’s suggested to be sentient (though to the film’s credit, this is left as a subtle aspect of the story, which winds up adding depth to it.)

Atom goes from being sure dead meat (or the robot equivalent) to being a contender for the title of robot champion.  Classic boxing narrative: check.

The thing about the movie is that it does work, despite itself.  Director Shawn Levy (whose prior film credits include things like Cheaper by the Dozen (2003), The Pink Panther (2006), Night at the Museum (2006), Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009), and Date Night (2010)) often lets the emotional moments linger too long. The girlfriend is in tears of joy watching the boy who is in tears of joy, watching his dad in tears of joy…you get the idea.

Yet somehow, this ham-fisted story delivery works within the genre.  By the end of the film we were all rooting for Jackman and Atom and while I didn’t muster tears of joy, I did actually quite enjoy the damn thing.  Though Felix was a bit non-committal after the film, he was full of smiles at the sassy Goyo and Clara watched the final fight with clenched fists and intensity.

The effects are good, too, using real life “robots” for many close-ups and well-executed digital effects for the bigger action scenes.  Atom has a simple design with lit-up eyes and a strange scar-like laceration to the mesh of his face that gives him a subtle but effective smile.  The one thing the film holds back on is Atom as a thinking, possibly living thing, holding those cards close to the vest and I have to say that I think that is one of the keys to why this film wound up working so well for me.

I don’t know.  Go figure.  The boxing robot movie was actually pretty good.

Godzilla vs. Hedorah

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971) movie poster

(1971) director Yoshimitsu Banno
viewed: 10/22/2011

Godzilla vs. Hedorah (a.k.a. Godzilla vs. the Smog Monster) is certainly not Godzilla’s strongest moment.  It’s also probably not his weakest moment either.  It’s about ecology.  Pollution.  It’s “The Lorax” of the Godzilla franchise.

For my money, Godzilla’s best villains were Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster (1964) (a.k.a. Monster Zero (1964)) and Mechagodzilla (Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla (1974)).  But whether you’re fighting King Kong (King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962)) or Mothra (Mothra vs. Godzilla (1964), sometimes you have to take on the likes of Ebirah (Godzilla Versus the Sea Monster (1966), or Megalon, or, in this case, Hedorah.  Whereas Ebirah (the Sea Monster) is a giant crayfish, prawn or lobster, Hedorah is a mutated pollywog.  Mutated to love toxic fumes.

Godzilla himself is the result of toxic poisoning, mutated from a dinosaur egg by radiation from nuclear testing.  In some ways, Hedorah is a kindred spirit.  Only by this time, Godzilla stands with the people, not against them.  He’s no longer a resultant nature attacking the humanity that spawned him.  He’s now out there doing the social service of putting down this mutant amphibian, working with the humans (whose own technology to clean fix the problem fails them.)  His radioactive breath kick-starts the electronic blasts that manage to dehydrate Hedorah to death.

Of course, the question is posed again at the end: Is this the only Hedorah?  Or will there be more?

Hedorah, with his glowing red eyes and his inside body of muck, is moderately cool.  He’s cooler than Ebirah.  I ended up watching this one with Clara and the two girls from upstairs who had never seen a Godzilla movie before.  I had to assure them that it wasn’t going to be scary and that basically the good monster was going to beat up the bad monster in the end.  Really, that’s what all Godzilla movies are about, right?

Over the last 3 years, we’ve watched a number of the original series, the Showa series, of Godzilla films and I’m still keen to finish out the cycle.   There are a couple that aren’t available from Netflix (they haven’t been for whatever reason) so we’ve still got a couple outstanding.  For our Halloween “horror”-fest, at least one good movie featuring guys in rubber suits duking it our it a requisite.  And we have met it.

Phase IV

Phase IV (1974) movie poster

(1974) director Saul Bass
viewed: 10/21/2011

A very strange little science fiction/horror film here, from noted cinematic title sequence designer and general graphic design great Saul Bass.  It was the only feature film that he ever directed.

Avant-garde in its narrative, it takes a while to figure out exactly what this film really is.  It opens with a strange “unknown cosmic event” which influences the ants of the planet to stop fighting and to merge their goals.  The intelligence is a collective intelligence, but as actors of the elemental pieces of their landscape, they take on mankind.  The film is set in either Southern California or Arizona desert and takes quite a while before any people even show up.  The ants are real ants and the footage looks and feels often like pure documentary.

But that would be understating it considerably.  As low-budget as it is and with this strange adherence to a limited style of narrative, the film often casts some striking images, both highlighted contrasts of small ants against bright orange backdrops of the sun, high-contrast visions, and even some kind of interesting set design (the ants build these weird pipe-like towers).  It’s both unusual and incredibly effective.

It’s nothing quite like anything I’ve ever seen, but from what I’ve read, it does in some ways resemble a documentary from three years prior called The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971), which mixed close-up images of insects and some weird science fiction prophecy of doom or evolution.  And for my money, though the dialogue is limited and the production not so conducive to traditional acting, this film is an earnest endeavor.  And it also somewhat represents another aspect of 1970’s science fiction that I find interesting, this less cleanly narrative style in which very little is explained to the full degree and a lot is left for sensorial interpretation.

You’d look at that movie poster and be looking for something entirely different.  If you got this film looking for horror and gore and what-have-you, you’d be disappointed.  But as a very unusual, visually striking, science fiction film about “what if ants took over the world?”, you’d be barking up the right tree.

The Devil-Doll

The Devil-Doll (1936) movie poster

(1936) director Tod Browning
viewed: 10/16/2011

Anything from director Tod Browning is of note in my book.  The director of such strange and effecting classics like The Unholy Three (1925), The Unknown (1927), London After Midnight (1927), Dracula (1931), Freaks (1932), and Mark of the Vampire (1935), Browning rose to his success primarily in working with Lon Chaney, Sr.  His film London After Midnight is considered one of the great lost films.  His 1932 pre-code film Freaks is an epic cult film.  He started in the silents and ended in retirement not long after making The Devil-Doll, an indisputably B-movie, but filled with lots of weirdness.

The film opens as Lionel Barrymore and another man have escaped from prison.  Barrymore’s character is fixated on revenge on the bankers that ruined him, while the other man has been a bit of a mad scientist with a dream to solve the world’s food shortage by shrinking humans to 1/6th their natural size.  When the scientist dies before realizing his dream (though he does perfect the science of it), Barrymore absconds to Paris to use this shrinking technology to exact his revenge on his enemies.

While the film really doesn’t manage much in great shakes, the miniature special effects are actually very good.  Mostly made with split screens and fake giant props, the visual style is more effective than a lot of other films, probably with a much more substantial budget.  With a cross-dressing avenger and miniature human “dolls” exacting revenge, the film has a lot of the goodly elements that make for a pleasurable little flick.  While it doesn’t necessarily surpass the sum of its parts, its parts are quite entertaining.

Mad Love

 

Mad Love (1935) movie poster

(1935) director Karl Freund
viewed: 10/16/2011

Adapted from Maurice Renard’s story “The Hands of Orlac,” Karl Freund’s 1935 film, Mad Love, was star Peter Lorre’s first American film.  Freund, a noted cinematographer, manages a lot of gloom and atmosphere but seems less assured as director, I am noting, especially having just watched this film and his 1932 directorial debut, The Mummy.  Still, Mad Love has a lot going for it.

The film comes post-the Hollywood Code implementation but is still quite a lurid tale.  It opens with Lorre haunting a Grand Guignol style of theater, featuring a lovely beauty tortured and killed (in a play) for the audience.  This particularly titilates Lorre’s Dr. Gogol, who has a “mad love” for the star of the show.  When he finds out she is about to be wed, he is crushed, and buys a wax statue of her to take home with him.

Her husband is a talented and up and coming pianist who has his hands crushed in a tragic train crash.  The woman appeals to Drl. Gogol to do something to save her husband’s hands, and the doctor winds up giving him the hands of a knife-throwing killer who is put to death before his eyes.  You see, Gogol likes to visit executions.

The whole thing gets even more bizarre as the husband struggles with his new hands, which like to throw knives more than play the piano and Dr. Gogol tries to set him up as a fall guy for his own father’s murder.  The pianist is played by Colin Clive, most famous for playing the overwrought Dr. Frankenstein in Frankenstein (1931).  Part of Gogol’s plan is to dress himself in this freakish costume to pretend to be the resurrected murderer back from the dead.  He has robotic metal hands and a metal neck brace that gives him a queer sneer (the brace is to keep his head on post-guillotine.)

Aspects of the film’s manic darkness reminded me a bit of Doctor X (1931), which was actually released in a collection of DVDs that included Mad Love as well.  Doctor X turned out to be a real joy, and while Mad Love isn’t quite as fun as it, it’s a strange, Freudian thriller in its own right.

The Mummy

The Mummy (1932) movie poster

(1932) director Karl Freund
viewed: 10/14/2011

October being Halloween month, and hoping that some older horror films would be less frightening for the kids after Poltergeist (1982), we revisited the classics of Universal Pictures’ horror brigade.  A couple years ago, we watched a number of Universal’s “monster movies”  such as The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Son of Frankenstein (1939), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), The Wolf Man (1941), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Frankenstein (1931), but we hadn’t ever gotten to The Mummy (1932).

Directed by noted cinematographer Karl Freund, the film has lots of interesting camera movement and features a number of striking shots, probably none more iconic than the camera’s lingering stare upon the mummy’s face or the modern day mummy, Ardath Bey (both actually the inimitable Boris Karloff in amazing make-up),  But the story of Imhotep, a priest who was buried alive from attempting to raise his beautiful princess from the dead, brought back to life by the same magic in modern times isn’t quite as compelling as Frankenstein or Dracula (1931) or perhaps even The Wolf Man.  Though they did go on to make four sequels.

Zita Johann is quite compelling as the half-Egyptian daughter of a local mayor, the living embodiment of the dead princess.  And Karloff, he always makes things groovy.  But the mummy, wrapped in all its shroud, appears onscreen for only a moment (apparently the make-up was both painful and extremely time-consuming to put on), and so the lesser figure of Karloff as Ardath Bey is the primary “monster” through most of the film,  He may be undead, but he doesn’t cut quite the figure of the entombed version of himself.

The kids were pretty spooked by the atmosphere of the early part of the film, probably its strongest segment.  This is the part in which the curse is read, “death to whoever opens this casket” and yet shrugged off breaking the seal and awakening the corpse of Imhotep.  The subtle moments, awaiting the creeping terror are by far more frightening than what the film has in store at the end.

The funny thing was that the kids had recently seen the 1999 re-make of the film, which through digital effects and a bit of Indiana Jones into the picture.  Rather different things, indeed.

Moneyball

Moneyball (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Bennett Miller
viewed: 10/14/2011 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Moneyball is a good baseball movie.  Quite a good baseball movie.  Maybe not a great baseball movie.

I never read Michael Lewis’ 2003 book from which this film was adapted, though I’ve always heard it was a good read.  But I lived here in the Bay Area during the time of the events depicted and followed the A’s, not as closely as my hometown team the Giants, but I’ve always followed it.  In that way, in particular for me, it had an added level of interest.

The film stars Brad Pitt as Billy Beane, the General Manager whiz for the Oakland A’s and his attempts to field a successful baseball team at a budget less than a quarter of the top tier teams in the league.  The film follows the 2002 season, which starts when the A’s lose three of their top players to free agency after losing the ALDS to the Yankees.  Pitt meets Peter Brand (played by Jonah Hill), a Yale-educated economics guy who adheres to an outsider system of analyzing baseball success called Sabremetrics, which focuses on statistical analysis to target players that other teams would overlook, keen on “on base percentage” over things like fielding and raw talent.

The film takes quite a bit of license with the reality, Brand for instance isn’t a real person, but a composite of various assistants.  So, it would be interesting to know at least what Lewis reported on as the facts in his book.  But Beane had to fight the baseball traditionalists and a lot of other stuff to get this vision onto the field.  And then it was working.  The A’s went on a 20-game win streak, a record-breaking streak that vaulted them back into the playoffs and validated the sabremetric approach.

There is some irony in a baseball movie in which the heroes are the ones with the spreadsheets, not the traditional aspects of the game that give baseball so much of its flavor and character.  It would be typically easier to side with the gritty, old-school scouts who actually offer the film its richest, funniest moments.  It seems that they used a group of aging real scouts to play the team that Beane has to shake up with his radical thinking.  These guys are inimitable, talking about a guy’s face, the looks of his girlfriend, saying all kinds of arcane gobbletygook that it’s got to be real.  Best part of the movie for my money.

As Pitt as Beane says more than once in the film, “It’s hard not to get romantic about baseball.”  And like all good sports films, you do get caught up in the dramatics, even knowing what the outcome will be.  The film paints Beane as an uber-competitive, idiosyncratic baseball man but also as a caring, loving father.  And ultimately, Beane turned down the big dollars to go to work for the Boston Red Sox, who ended up fielding a World Series winning team that year,  to stay in California, not just for the A’s but for his daughter.  And Beane, of course, still runs the ship over on the other side of the bay.

It’s a good story, a good movie.  I think I will look to read the book now.