Legend (1985)

Legend (1985) movie poster

director Ridley Scott
viewed: 02/24/2012

I don’t know how I’d never managed to see Ridley Scott’s 1985 fantasy adventure film, Legend, but I hadn’t.  I’ve never been a Tom Cruise fan and maybe I was a bit young to know about Ridley Scott.  Anyway, while looking for films for the kids, 1980’s action/fantasy has been a fruitful genre/period, so I queued this up for them and myself.

After debuting with his film, The Duellists (1977), Scott made his two masterpiece science fiction films, Alien (1979) and Blade Runner (1982).  Both of those films featured such innovative and influential visual designs, it’s not surprising that when he turned his lens to fantasy that the resultant designs are overwhelmingly stunning.

The film is set in a classical fairy tale world inhabited by elves, sprites, dwarves and demons.  And unicorns.  And Tom Cruise as a boy of the forest.  Mia Sara, most known for her role in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986), is the goodly princess who loves him.  It’s a very young Tom Cruise, still very boyish.  When Tom’s character takes the princess to view the unicorn, her trespass against the rules in approaching and touching the magical animal of purity sets up the opportunity for the creature to be attacked by dark forces.

Dark forces, in this case, are driven by “Darkness,” an elaborately-made-up Tim Curry as Satan with massive, massive horns.  He seeks to kill the two remaining unicorns and steal their horns, allowing him to pitch the world into eternal darkness, in which he rules.  His minions successfully get the first unicorn when the princess approaches it, throwing the world into night and snow, and setting the adventure afoot.

A number of trolls or dwarves or other forest sprites appear, the most significant of which is Gump, the striking-looking small boy-man, played by David Bennent, who starred in the amazing 1979 film of The Tin Drum.  He is the leader of the magical creatures of the forest and bears the fascinating features of an adult in the child’s visage.  Whereas Bennent required little make-up to be so striking (he does have long elfin ears), the others are cased in top of the line prosthesis.  The make-up in the film is uncanny.

This film’s shortcoming, unfortunately, is in story and tone (and perhaps in character).  The story is original, though heavily influenced by traditional fairy tales and folklore, but it lacks imperative and, at times, logic.  Why the demon doesn’t kill the second unicorn right away and be done with it, I have no idea.  And why he falls for the princess?  Doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The tone is driven by the designs, which are dark and detailed.  It lacks wit and humor, even in its characters who are meant to embody that for the script.  And finally, none of the characters in themselves are compelling.  It all looks great, but it doesn’t suck you in.

I don’t know that the kids would put it the same way but they both found it disappointing.  Just as a point of comparison, they both said that they liked both Stardust (2007) and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen (1989) better, two fantasy adventure films that we had recently watched.

I still say that the visuals are stunning.  I was a bit dubious as the film opened in the glorious forest and it seemed that birds were being thrown into the frame every other cut.  But the light, filtering through the trees, with the air full of seedpods or dust or “magic” or whatever…it all looked a little overdone.  But as the film progresses the whole thing becomes more and more striking.  Sadly, just not amazing nor compelling.

She Freak (1967)

She Freak (1967) movie poster

director Byron Mabe
viewed: 02/25/2012

She Freak, which has a pretty good poster, is actually a re-make of sorts of Tod Browning’s classic Freaks (1932).  Unfortunately, it lacks the titular stars of the original film in large part, the exploitative but compelling aspect of Browning’s cult masterpiece.  Even though it’s a David F. Friedman production, it’s also pretty short on the gore and exploitation too.

So you take the Freaks of of Freaks and don’t replace it with a whole lot, you don’t end up with a particularly impressive movie.

Friedman had a long history with carnival life and one of the most interesting features of She Freak is actually the bulk of documentary-style footage of the day to day work of the carnival: hoisting the tents, erecting the rides, setting up the games of chance, and the deconstruction of it all as it moves to the next town.  Set to a mod rock soundtrack, it is pretty interesting in itself, but not necessarily if you are looking for a “she freak” or “something barbaric…on the alley of nightmares”.

The story of a pretty blond waitress who hooks up with the carnival to get some kicks but who turns out to be a two-timing baddie isn’t quite as titillating as the similar tale from Browning’s film.  In Browning’s film, the floozy marries and kills one of the “freaks”, the small man.  So, when the freaks take their revenge, it’s a little more involved.  In She Freak she hooks up with the normal-looking sideshow manager and brings about his death.  Oddly enough, outside of being slow and lacking on exploitation elements, the film isn’t all that bad.  Nor is it good necessarily.

The ending is the key.  And the final image, the one used for the movie poster, the disfigured beauty turned to “She Freak” is nearly the lone perk in the 80 some odd minutes of the film.

Cold Weather (2010)

Cold Weather (2010) movie poster

director Aaron Katz
viewed: 02/21/2012

Mumblecore stylings meets film noir.  In Portland, OR.

Asinine amateur hour, if you ask me.  Actually, it got quite decent reviews. Not entirely sure why.

A very lame young man comes back to Portland and moves in with his sister, forgoing his forensic science studies in Chicago.  He gets a job in an ice factory, and then when his ex-girlfriend goes missing, he, his sister, and his buddy from the ice factory play amateur sleuths.

It’s not that this idea couldn’t work.  The guy, played by Cris Lankenau, has zero personality and motivation.  His ambivalence is awkward enough at first but when the story starts turning into a story, he still doesn’t make sense.  The whole kind of thing is half-assed.  Maybe it’s supposed to be about half-assed people, but none of the characters have an iota of truth to them.

The best thing about the film is the shots of Portland and the world around it.

I really found this lame.

 

 

Tiny Furniture (2010)

Tiny Furniture (2010) movie poster

director Lena Dunham
viewed: 02/20/2012

Tiny Furniture is the little film from Lena Dunham who many critics have hailed as the rise of a major talent.  Falling somewhat (or mostly) in the mumblecore rubric, a categorization that Dunham resists, the film is a small, personal film shot on the cheap and focusing on someone in their 20’s, fresh out of college with nowhere to go.  The critics are the ones who usually establish what makes a style or a genre, not the directors, and anyway, that might well be a moot point.

As for her rising star, Dunham has a new show debuting soon on HBO and her little feature, Tiny Furniture, when released on DVD got the Criterion Collection treatment, which is mainly to say the best “label” to be on, arbiters of the best of cinema, and certainly the best production value on DVD (dying format that it perhaps is).  Compared to Woody Allen and Nora Ephron, a New Yorker who writes, stars and directs, Dunham is getting the kudos.

The film was shot in her family’s loft/apartment in Manhattan and stars not only Dunham but her sister and her mother as her character’s sister and mother.  That’s truly using the means of production right at your fingertips.  And the story, which is in varying parts autobiographical can make you ask how far out from reality is all of this?  These characters certainly aren’t “stretches”, right?

Dunham herself (or her character, Aura) looks and talks and feels like someone you know or knew, clever, kind, a little mixed-up.  Lena is not Hollywood.  She looks very much like an average girl, and a common comment about her style is that her story is “warts and all”.  I think this is in part her own physicality in the film, running around in a shirt and underwear or in varying states of dressed and undressed, her body is an aspect of the story, of her character, or who she is.  She doesn’t actually have warts, but she’s unafraid to show herself, camera-ready or not.

Early on, Aura comments on her university days that everyone is writing what they know, about their first orgasm, love, kiss.  Dunham herself is only half-removed from that critique.  She’s writing what she knows, and basically, that is the next step out of college for a person yet without a plan.  Like Dunham, Aura is a film-maker, though we never really hear much about her work.

The movie is surprisingly ingratiating and beyond that, surprisingly effective.  So much of the same content, focus, humor, storytelling, characterizing in the hands of another young writer/director/star would most often be immensely uneven or even unwatchable.  But Dunham’s film is something better and bigger than that.   It’s a small movie about a brief period in a person’s life, which captures the feel and sensibility, but somehow transforms above it into something more rich and rewarding.  I was a little surprised how satisfied I felt at the end of the film.

I think it’s too early to crown her a genius but Tiny Furniture is a far more mature and rich film of the few mumblecore films that I’ve seen.  It will be interesting to see her develop.

Contagion (2011)

Contagion (2011) movie poster

director Steven Soderbergh
viewed: 02/18/2012

I have been pretty keen on seeing Contagion.  I guess you’d have to say “how keen?” as I neither managed to see it in the theater and was also patient enough to wait for Netflix to finally release the film (after their embargo on new content expired).  It had a lot of good buzz and it looked to me to be quite the thing to see.  But I guess that I was able to be patient enough to wait for it to come to me.

A disease thriller, this is only science fiction in that it is fiction.  The plot adheres as closely to a believable reality of a modern epidemic.  Think H1N1, but this time, people die by the thousands.  You get a runny nose, you feel like crap, three days later you’re in seizures and then you die.  It doesn’t matter if you’re Gwyneth Paltrow (actually, being a big star probably increases your chances of failing to make it through the film alive).

The film starts off running, with its pantheon of stars, several sets of mini-narratives, cross-cutting one another, attempt to tell this global story at a pace and immediacy of the now.  Much is made of the “fomites,” the many objects or touches that can swiftly pass a pathogen on from one human to the next or the many.  Director Steven Soderbergh lets the camera linger just long enough on the peanut bowl at the bar, the handles on a bus, the number of times a person touches their face and then touches a public object.  It’s a germophobe’s nightmare deluxe.

And for that matter, it’s an incredibly timely nightmare for the world.  In our increasingly global universe, the right contagion could sweep the human populace like the Black Death, taking down immense numbers of people, a significant percentage of the human race.   Some say it’s just a matter of time.  Perhaps the movie is perfectly prescient.

The movie is really quite good through the first hour or so.  The zeitgeist thriller really taps into something and moves with alacrity and with some deadly power.  The only thing is that the last half hour or so, the film loses some of its potency.  It’s hard to put my finger on it exactly, what happened, but it sort of sputters to the finish line.  I found the Jude Law character the weakest of the bunch and the kidnapping of Marion Cotillard seemed to veer off from whatever track had the film moving so well.  This hardly ruins the film, just diminishes what starts out as a top rate flick.  A popcorn movie that will keep you from sharing your popcorn.

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010)

The Secret World of Arrietty (2010) movie poster

director Hiromasa Yonebayashi
viewed: 02/18/2012 at AMC Loews Metreon 16, SF, CA

It’s a sad fact that one day, we will live in a world without Hayao Miyazaki actively making movies.  We may already be living in a world where Miyazaki is no longer directing films.  There has been speculation, based on his own words, that Ponyo (2008) may prove to be the last feature film for which he will have a directorial credit.  We have been so lucky to live in world in which a master film-maker created at the top of his craft such films as My Neighbor Totoro (1988), Spirited Away (2001), Howl’s Moving Castle (2004) and so many others.

What we have in The Secret World of Arrietty is perhaps the next best thing to a film directed by Miyazaki.  It’s a film written by Miyazaki and to some extent “planned” by him.  I’m not sure if this includes storyboards or to what extent his hand remained in, but Arrietty does bear more of his mark than other films from Studio Ghibli.  It is directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi who worked as an animator on a number of Miyazaki’s films, and I’d be hard pressed (or merely speculating) to suppose where the word started and stopped.  The most important thing is that while Arrietty may not be entirely a Miyazaki film, it bears a great deal of the charm and beauty of his work.  It’s a fine film.

Based on the novel, The Borrowers by Mary Norton, the story is about a little family of little people who live in a house in the Japanese countryside.  They “borrow” what they need from the bigger humans, hiding their existence entirely from them.  But when Sean, a boy with a heart condition, is brought to the house to convalesce, he discovers the teenage borrower Arrietty and tries to make friends with her.  Ultimately, when the family realizes that they have been discovered, they have to leave and rebuild their home somewhere else, but the friendship between Sean and Arrietty brings about hopeful changes for both.

It’s a sweet film.  Like Ponyo, it’s rated G (a rare enough thing these days in children’s film), with a strict limit to drama, danger, and violence.  While there is no out-and-out magic at play here (a common Miyazaki theme), this family of little people are in  a sense the magic of the world, a hidden, endangered, beautiful element sadly threatened increasingly by change.  The family aren’t sure if they are or not the last of their species.

Arrietty is yet another of Miyazaki’s strong young female protagonists, spirited and innocent, breaking into the world in new ways.

Both Felix and Clara liked it a lot, though Felix, typically was less enthusiastic after a while.  I thought it was quite enjoyable myself.

We are lucky to live in a world in which Hayao Miyazaki is still creating cinema, and we can hope that he will continue to do so.

 

Captain Blood (1935)

Captain Blood (1935) movie poster

director Michael Curtiz
viewed: 02/17/2012

For all the films, genres, stars, experiences that I handpick to show to my kids, intending to expose them to the breadth of cinema, there are a number of those that I, myself, have no first-hand experience.  Take Errol Flynn for instance.  Before we watched The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) last year, I couldn’t claim that I’d really seen any of his films.  The more and more that we watch together, and the broader and broader of the material to which they are open, we will doubtlessly continue to forge into territory that is new not just for them, but for me.

Actually, I hadn’t realized that it had already been a year since we saw our first Errol Flynn film.  I’d had Captain Blood in my queue, waiting for its week for film night.

Captain Blood is actually a title that I recall getting heavy play on television as a kid and actually still on TCM.  For whatever reason, I’d never seen it.  Based on a popular novel of the early 20th Century, it tells the tale of a doctor turned pirate in the topsy-turvy world of 17th Century Britain.  The evil (or at least very unlikable) King James has a group of rebels sent off as slaves to Jamaica to serve a brutal Lord there on his plantation.  Dr. Blood (Flynn) had been an adventurer, but had settled as a doctor, only pulled into the courts when captured healing a rebel.  When opportunity finally shows itself, he leads an escape of the unjustly imprisoned men, taking a pirate ship and then turning buccaneers themselves, becoming the scourge of the Caribbean.

For all its swashbuckling, the film actually takes quite a while to get to its first battle and it’s quite deep into the story before a sword fight breaks out.  By contrast, action got happening much more quickly and regularly in the later The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Oddly enough, the kids were both invested in the film early on, not being plaintive for more action.

Again, I thought that Felix would be more into it than Clara.  He was more into it than he was in the prior week’s Astaire/Rogers film Swing Time (1936), but Clara was in some ways equally as excited about it as the other.  As for me, I enjoyed it a great deal, too, though I did find it a bit slower than ye olde Robin Hood.

The finale is by far the best, as Blood leads his crew in an attack on two French ships engaged in besieging the port.  Finding out that James has been chased from the throne, usurped by King William, the English take the pirates back and the enemy has now sided with the French.  The battle sequence is enthralling.  While Felix noted the fakery of the skies in the background on some shots, it’s a testament to the battle sequence that one isn’t drawn to figuring out what shots are models, which shots are sound stage, trying to decipher the artifice.  It’s just a good old adventure with the high-flying Flynn, still exciting and fun.

Bombay Beach (2011)

Bombay Beach (2011) movie poster

director Alma Har’el
viewed: 02/16/2012

Bombay Beach is a small community on California’s the Salton Sea.   Though I never saw the movie The Salton Sea (2002), a neo-noir set in this milieu, I have been intrigued by it.  Apparently, the current “sea” was formed in the early part of the 20th century when the Colorado River flooded, bursting dams and other man-made attempts to harness it, and water poured into this low-lying area, which had been connecting lakes, rivers, waterways back through the ages.  Apparently, briefly, it became a tourist destination, an inland sea for partying on.

Now for some time, the area around much of this isolated sea has become a home for various people who have removed themselves from society, generally through poverty or intentional isolation.  As for the Val Kilmer film, I think it focused on the methamphetamine communities and other more criminal elements.  Whatever it is or isn’t, I’ve been curious about it.

Bombay Beach is a sort of “artistic” documentary by Israeli-born director Alma Har’el, who focuses on a few key people and families in the Bombay Beach community, following them throughout their lives and travails for a period of time.  I say “artistic” documentary because while it is a documentary, is attempting to capture and document these people, this place, Har’el also takes some liberties with the reality, staging scenes and instances with some poetic license.  While some of these are more clearly fictional or contrived, others are more subtle and confusing.

There is a surreal nature to this.  There is perhaps a surreality to the world itself, untouched by anything other than the camera eye.  It reckons of David Lynch or Diane Arbus, a weirdness of the world that just is.  The landscape, with dead fish on the ground, desolate, decaying structures, damaged, withered people, it speaks a lot.

The core of the story is living with these people, the elderly racist fellow who makes his living selling cigarettes, the young African American boy who relocated from the rough parts of LA after a cousin was killed in gang violence, the young boy on insane medication with behavioral issues.  The ultimate portrait of the people is less exploitative than might seem at first.  Har’el follows them through their aspirations and life changes, and while initially reveling somewhat in their outre-ness, the story is more sympathetic than many.

Still, I feel the “artistic” license employed degrades the possibilities of the documentary.  While documentary is never truly objective and perhaps belies itself in projecting that ideal, Har’el’s surreal moments of dance and dialogue, perhaps meant to suggest the characters’ inner worlds seem contrived and false to me.  It seems like the protagonists participated cheerfully and willingly in these sequences, and while it pushes beyond their natural language and behavior, it grated on me.  Perhaps as more and more documentaries are made as production costs drop, the variety and challenge of the form will come under further and further expansion and testing, such discordances as this will feel more part of the language of these forms.  I don’t know.  I recognize it’s a personal response on my part.

 

Buck (2011)

Buck (2011) movie poster

director Cindy Meehl
viewed: 02/12/2012

My step-sister had recommended this film to me, and others since, and now I am recommending it to a lot of people because I can think of so many people who would appreciate it.

Buck Brannaman is not “the horse whisperer”, though he did inspire the character of Nicholas Evans’ novel and  consult with Robert Redford on the 1998 film.  In a lot of ways, he’s “the horse therapist”.  In reality, he espouses a practice known as “natural horsemanship” which is kinder, gentler and far more “humane” than traditional practices of “bustin’ broncos”.  He’s noted for his amazing way to approach a new horse and within minutes having it follow him where he goes.  He does this without violence of any kind, only patience and empathy.

The film follows the low-key cowboy from one training session to another and recounts his own troubled childhood in which he withstood immense physical abuse at the hands of his father.  A truly inspiring story of coping with trauma, he has gone on to deal with horses with the same steady conscientiousness and good will that most any person would find a valued attribute in another.

The most dramatic sequence of the film occurs when a truly wild, damaged animal, noted to be one of the most dangerous that one of his collaborators had ever seen, attacks another horseman who is trying to use the gentle practices and tears a gash in his head, and perhaps easily could have killed him.  The horse’s owner realizes that the animal will have to be put down, but Buck comes in and with only his steady patience and flag, manages to coax the animal back into its traveling compartment.  Buck tells the woman, one of his great truisms, that animals often reflect their owners’ issues and problems, that it’s best to deal with oneself first than try to work with a creature beyond oneself.

It’s an impressive portrait of humanity, a portrait of humanity in a very idealized state, a state of patience, tolerance, and kindness that most anyone can appreciate and perhaps admire.

Swing Time (1936)

Swing Time (1936) movie poster

director George Stevens
viewed: 02/11/2012

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at the height of their collaboration, directed very effectively by George Stevens, and featuring music by the fantastic Jerome Kern.  What’s not to like?  The blackface, perhaps?

After watching Top Hat (1935) a couple of years ago, I wondered about watching films like this with kids.  This time, I did.  The magic was lost a bit on Felix, perhaps due more to tiredness (he fell asleep during the film) than due to real reaction, but Clara, who is soon to be 8, totally loved it, as did I.

As good as the Irving Berlin songs were in Top Hat, the Kern songs in Swing Time are even more impeccable.  “Pick Yourself Up”, “A Fine Romance”, “The Way You Look Tonight”.  Fantastic.

The dance sequences, namely the first, set to “Pick Yourself Up” in which Astaire vies to prove that Rogers has just taught him how to dance in the studio is magic.   The “Bojangles of Harlem” sequence is perhaps the most cinematic, highlighting a big tribute to Bill “Bojangles” Robinson with a striking sequence in which Astaire dances in front of a screen of three giant syncopated silhouettes of himself, projected behind him.  This sequence, though, is the site of the blackface that Astaire dons.  It’s the sad thing about blackface that it’s so rightly stigmatized that even in a sequence like this, which is done in tribute, and perhaps far less is lampoon, it’s still shameful.  I, personally, try not to get too hung up on these elements, as there is no simple, clear way to feel.  It’s of its time, it’s shameful, it’s there.  It’s still arguably one of the film’s best moments, tainted as it is.

Not being a particularly “dancey” person myself, I still found myself wanting to glide around the room a-la Astaire, and Clara did very much too.  It’s almost impossible not to get caught up in it.  We both thoroughly enjoyed it.  Felix slept through the ending, so maybe next time for him.