The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (2011)

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn: Part 1 (2011) movie poster

director Bill Condon
viewed: 04/25/2012

For the Twilight series, I’ve been in for a penny, in for a pound despite really despising the films.  Why I’m compelled to finish the series is becoming more and more of a mystery to me.  For the life of me, I can hardly remember what happens from one to the other.  It seems like a whole lot of nothing.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1 (I hate segmented series movie titles) actually got some of the worst reviews of the series, making me hope briefly that this might be more fun.  There were rumors of grown men passing out during the birth scene, so gruesome and intense it was, another flash of potential and possibility for note.  Still, it was not with bated breath that I awaited my opportunity to see the movie.

Oddly, I found this one marginally more tolerable than the prior film, The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010).

I’ll sum this one up for you.  Bella marries Edward.  Jake pouts.  She has sex with Edward while he is a vampire and she is still a living human, though everyone is worried that he will kill her in the process.  Lo and behold, she gets knocked up.  With a baby that might be evil (it grows super fast.)  She looks heroin chic in the process.  The birth scene is gruesome but not the most gruesome thing I’ve seen (though for PG-13, this film is seriously pushing the envelope.)  It’s a girl.  Bella dies and becomes a vampire.

I’m sure that this has been discussed by others but these films/books have this fairly conservative approach to sex.  Sex is deadly dangerous (with a vampire – it might kill you), so you get married first (of course).  And when you get pregnant, even if the fetus is a threat to the mother’s life, you do not abort, you have the baby, no matter what the humans or the vampires or the werewolves think!  Bella keeps her baby, even though it kills her (luckily she had this whole becoming a vampire back-up plan.)  It’s like these films are stumping for the Republican “war on women” agendas.

I have no idea what’s left to deal with in Part 2.  I really don’t care either.  I’ll watch it.  I’ve watched them all so far.

Alps (2011)

Alps (2011) movie poster

director Yorgos Lanthimos
viewed: 04/24/2012 at Kabuki Sundance Cinemas, SF, CA

Alps is the latest film from Greek film maker/writer/director Yorgos Lanthimos.  It played as part of this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, so even without knowing much about it, I was very interested in seeing it.  His previous film, Dogtooth (2009), was one of the two best films that I saw on DVD last year, and I’ve been reading about the rise of Greek cinema and its strangely surreal nature.

Alps is not unlike Dogtooth in that it also deals with people and reality and does so in a darkly comic, somewhat disturbing tone.  Whereas in Dogtooth, a father kept his adult children hemmed in on a property away from the rest of the world, a world that he portrayed with various falsities and lies to keep them at home, Alps is about people who strive to participate in the lives of others, playing roles of the recently departed.  As part of a very formal yet probably unofficial troupe of four, each of the people attempt to fill roles in lives in which people have died.  It’s part service and therapy, but it’s also a codependent fulfillment for the actors, particularly the woman played by Aggeliki Papoulia, who lose sight of themselves and their own worlds.

There is a plethora of absurdity and flatly delivered interactions.   At one point the young gymnast of the group attempts to mimic Prince, but does so very shabbily, not being recognizable by her peers.   The men tell her that Prince is not dead.  She then argues that he is dead (you’re only supposed to imitate the dead.)  Another sliver of a break from an understanding of reality.

The best scene, perhaps, is after Paloulia plays through a dialogue with a man in a lighting store, going over an argument, reeling lines as if from a script in flat, unemotional specificity.  When the argument ends, they retreat to the basement and engage in a similarly stilted scene of sex.  The man tells her, as he administers oral sex to her, to say something like “Oh, it feels so good.  It’s like heaven.”  But she gets it wrong and says, “Oh, it feels so good.  It’s like paradise.”  And he stops and corrects her.  Even for the people who are reliving moments with a stand-in for a lost loved one, the scenes are denuded of emotionality.  They are much more like going through the motions, but needing things to be a specific way.

My friend who I saw it with didn’t care for the film, finding it disturbing.  The film has a subtle undertone of violence, from an early threat from the coach to the gymnast, the brutally bloodied body of the tennis-player teenager after her car crash, and a brutal smack in the face with a club towards the end.  More than physical violence, though, the film plays in the area of discomfort and unease, with characters whose motivations seem to emanate from a different psychology.  Would a family who’ve just lost a young daughter accept the offer of her nurse to play her role for a while?  There is definitely a perverse quality in those who hunt like ambulance-chasing lawyers for opportunities to craft their art.

As the leader of the team anoints the group “Alps” because the Alps could stand in for any mountain, but no other mountain to stand in for the Alps.  He of course takes Mont Blanc, the largest of the Alps for himself.  I was brought to mind oddly of Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998) wherein a group of renegade young people pretend to be mentally retarded in some strange sociological or performance piece.  While The Idiots never discuss what they do, there is this weird parallel of a troupe of people operating on society’s fringe in an ambiguous manner for equally ambiguous reasons.

Me, I actually liked the film.  Maybe not quite as much as Dogtooth, but then again maybe so.

In Time (2011)

In Time (2011) movie poster

director Andrew Niccol
viewed: 04/22/2012

Time is money, so the saying goes.  In writer/director Andrew Niccol’s science fiction film In Time, that commodification is made literal.  The implications abound.  For instance, when you run out of time, you stop dead, no matter how old you are.  As in the real world, where the rich have most of the money while the poor have little to none, so in this future world, the rich have all the time in the world and the poor struggle day to day, hour to hour, minute to minute.

In that sense, the film makes it most poignant critiques regarding the haves versus the have-nots as well as in the puns and jokes about literalizing the metaphor of time and money.  In the world of the film, genetic engineering has gotten so advanced that people age until they are 25 and then have one year left and then die unless they have more time.  So there are people over 100 years old who still look and “are” 25, generations of a family all played by people of the same age.  The amount of time one has is imprinted on one’s arm in glowing green light.  In this world, that is what it’s all about.

It’s kind of bizarre, how no other technology seems to have advanced.  In fact, some of it seems to have regressed (such as telephones).   In fact, it’s like the time industry is the only industry.  Even the police have their primary function as timekeepers.  What about drugs and mental illness, interpersonal violence, other diseases of the flesh?  Not relevant here.

This action/adventure flick, starring Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried demands attention to only the things that the film holds pertinent.  And in that sense, if you can follow this slim line of reasoning, it’s entertaining enough.  But frankly this is weak speculative fiction, far from sophisticated, far from getting one to suspend all other disbelief to just dig in, enjoy the ride, and digest the social criticism.

Niccol, whose 1997 film, Gattaca, dealt with a similarly managed future, instead of time being of the essence, rather biological purity, genetic perfection was the goal of the future world.  The two films share a parallel in imagining a future when beauty and perfection are scientifically crafted.  In Time has perhaps a more Logan’s Run (1976) slant on it.

The concept’s lack of sophistication is the film’s core weakness, which reflects its otherwise middling production.

The Silent House (2010)

The Silent House (2010) movie poster

director Gustavo Hernández
viewed: 04/20/2012

By simply being a Uruguayan horror/thriller might have been unique enough to have made La Casa Muda (The Silent House) notable.  I don’t know if I’ve ever seen another Uruguayan film.  But the film has more uniqueness to offer, as it is filmed in (or at least the illusion of) a single take and has been touted as the first horror film to be conceived and shot that way.  And enough of this uniqueness (and potential quality) earned an American re-make, which got decent reviews, Silent House (2011).

The low-budget flick follows a teenage girl and her father as they tromp out to an isolated house in the countryside, a house that’s been boarded up for years and is now going to be sold.  Their job is to clean the place up, do the landscaping, get it ready for sale.  But not long after being dropped off there, strange things start happening.  Are there people harassing the caretakers?  Or ghosts?  Or what?

The single shot conceit works in a lot of parts of the film, an improvement say over the “faux found footage” low-budget stylings that have become so overused in horror films.  But actually the film has a lot of logic holes.  Little things nagged at me initially, like when the father is first attacked upstairs that the daughter, actress Florencia Colucci, doesn’t run up to see if he’s okay.  She actually does a lot of questionable things from a straight logic perspective.  But there are twists at the end that sort of make some of these things make more sense in retrospect.  However the twists also suggest even bigger plot holes than the earlier ones.  I won’t elaborate to ruin it for you.  I’m just saying that a lot of the film doesn’t make that much sense when you have the whole of the story to deal with.

Colucci isn’t particularly strong.  Her simpering gets a little on one’s nerves rather quickly.

The more I think about it the more I think the whole thing pretty silly.  I enjoyed it a bit more in the moment.  I’m curious enough to see the American re-make since it got decent reviews.  I am willing to sit through any amount of variable quality horror or science fiction.  I don’t know if that is a good thing or not.

Dream House (2011)

Dream House (2011) movie poster

director Jim Sheridan
viewed: 04/20/2012

Dream House is a mediocre (leaning towards lifeless) thriller starring Daniel Craig and the ever-lovely Rachel Weisz as husband and wife, parents of two young girls.  The also lovely Naomi Watts plays a neighbor who lives across the street from the strange family that lives in the house where some gruesome murders have taken place.

There is a big twist in the narrative that comes out about midway, but you can see it coming long before that.  Actually, if you’d seen  the trailer, you might also have figured this out before you even saw the movie.  Turns out that Craig is living in a delusion, that he was arrested for killing his wife and two girls (though he can’t imagine that he could have done it) and he’s caught in the happy delusion/spectral experience with his ghost family, trying to make sense of everything.

There’s a further twist towards the end, one that only makes sense in screenplays, something that pulls all the narratives together and makes for a nice pat ending.  Actually, you can kind of see where this film could have worked better perhaps in better hands.  Director Jim Sheridan supposedly wanted his name taken off of the film when the producers stepped in to edit the film and stars Craig and Weisz (who went on to get married to one another after this film) both refused to do press junkets for it.  So maybe there was something of more potential, muddled into the lower tiers of mediocrity.

House on Haunted Hill (1959)

House on Haunted Hill (1959) movie poster

director William Castle

viewed: 04/13/2012

A brief conversation with some 20-something co-workers brought shock to my ears.  I mentioned how another (older) co-worker had met Vincent Price and was commenting that I thought that was a very cool person to be able to say that one had met.  The crickets and the tumbleweeds and the blank expressions told me that these two women had never heard of Vincent Price.  I vowed that my children shall know Vincent Price.  They shall not be ignorant of the classic, classy Hollywood star/horror film icon.

We of course have watched a couple of other Vincent Price films together, mostly in the context of watching a lot of classic horror films.  We’d watched The Fly (1958) a couple of years back, and more recently had watched House of Wax (1953) (which Clara was really into), but I hadn’t harped upon the point of who the actors are.  I usually don’t, except in certain instances.  But after my little conversation with those two young women, I decided concertedly that we will know our Vincent Price.

Actually, I’d been considering starting with The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), inspired in part from the recent passing of its director Robert Fuest, but I thought better to go back to the 1950’s again, early Price.  And I’ve had the film House on Haunted Hill in my queue for ages anyway.  It has the double pleasure of not just being a Vincent Price film but a William Castle film, though I have to say that I’m still much more a fan of the pair’s The Tingler (1959), so maybe we’ll have to watch that together at some point too.

House on Haunted Hill is a lesser effort.  Price plays millionaire Frederick Loren, who invites an odd cast of characters, that he claims to have never met, to spend the night in a supposedly haunted house, offering $10,000 to anyone who survives the night.  The story is really about his own weird relationship with his wife, played by the very alluring Carol Ohlmert, with whom he has a rather openly hateful relationship.  As the story starts to unfold, it’s unclear if it’s the supernatural at work or what, and it’s a little unclear which way the film will go.

Clara found it pretty scary.  I talked to her about how we’ve seen some of these haunted house tropes played out in other things we’ve seen, suggesting that there is usually some twist to the plot.  Still, she found it freaky.  Not to say that she didn’t like it, but she said it was very scary.  Felix was away so it was just Clara and I. In the original release of the film, Castle mounted skeletons in the theaters that he ran out over the audiences’ heads at an appropriate time.  The film had a level of camp to it for me that made it pretty funny without being brilliantly so.

There are a few MacGuffins in the film that are sort of inexplicable if you spend too much time thinking about it.  A couple of gory heads that appear for moments of shock value.  They don’t really make sense if you think about it too much.  Best not do that then.  It’s fun stuff.  If Clara found it frightening, I’m sure that The Tingler would be much, much more scary.  It’s also much better.  I’ll have to navigate their appreciation for horror versus their actual level of fear.  I don’t recall finding it all that scary myself as a kid.

Coraline (2009)

Coraline (2009) movie poster

director Henry Selick
viewed: 04/12/2012

I’ve been known to effuse about Henry Selick’s 2009 stop-motion animated film, Coraline.  It really is not all that often that a film comes along and hits home with me in a way that Coraline has, moving into this amorphous, somewhat random personal pantheon of favorite movies.  But it did and it has and this, my fourth viewing of the film, first since 2010, no aspect of it seems diminished in my appreciation.  But one thing has expanded upon my appreciation, that of enjoying the film with Clara.

In my efforts to establish Felix and Clara’s favorite movies from the films that we’ve watched together, I was surprised by a few films that they didn’t remember or didn’t highlight, particularly a couple that we have on DVD (we don’t own an extensive DVD selection).  In pulling these discs out for future watching, Clara decided to watch Coraline on Wednesday (it’s spring break for them) and she was really into it.  She didn’t recall having seen it at all before.  And when a one-on-one movie night for Clara and I came along, her choice was the watch the film again, even after watching it the day before.

For me, Coraline is a classic sort of childhood fantasy.  Adapted from Neil Gaiman’s novel, the story of a young girl, not so much neglected by her parents, but alienated through their lack of attention, discovers in her new home a gateway to an alternate universe, where her “Other Mother” lives.  At first it’s an idealized fantasy land in which everything that is dull or rotten in her life takes on a vivified, magical enhancement, from a dancing mouse circus, to a stupendous acrobatic stage performance, to a full-color garden alive in her image.  Of course, the world is too good to be true, and the “Other Mother” tells her that she has to commit to her fantasy world, stay there forever, and sew buttons in place of her eyes.  This villain is some sort of a classic witch, feeding on the love and lives of children, more spider than human, and Coraline must solve some of the mysteries adherent to her in order to escape.

Why Clara didn’t remember the film, I can’t say.  I mean, we even read the book back around the time.  It doesn’t matter because it was fun for her to discover it and for us to enjoy it together.  She also was really curious about the music, by Bruno Coulais, which I’ve also noted and appreciated as part of the film’s strange tonality.  Heck, I’d even bought the soundtrack (something that really is not a particularly common thing for me.)  I dug it out and shared it with her as well.  For me, it’s very nice to have someone else who appreciates Coraline as much as I do.  It could hardly be better that it’s Clara and that the appreciation is so spot on.  And even better that it was her own re-discovery that brought it about.

Melancholia (2011)

Melancholia (2011) movie poster

director Lars von Trier
viewed: 04/09/2012

Lars von Trier’s films aren’t meant to be enjoyed, they’re meant to be endured.  Without a doubt that was true of his last film, Antichrist (2009), a surreal horror show filled with psychic violence and female castration.  Melancholia, on the other hand, is about depression and the end of the world.  At least no one cuts off a clitoris in this one.

The film is parted into two segments, named for the sisters, Justine (Kirsten Dunst) and Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg).  Dunst is a bipolar bride in a lavish wedding reception in her honor, facing her nastily negative iconoclast mother (Charlotte Rampling) and her besotted, genial father (John Hurt) and her crassly capitalistic boss (Stellan Skarsgård).  She goes through a series of increasingly odd behaviors in opposition to the festivities, eventually sinking the efforts of the event, sending everyone home miserable and unhappy.

The second part focuses on the coming of a planet that has been hiding “behind the sun,” Melancholia, which scientists and Claire’s billionaire husband (Kiefer Sutherland) think will dodge Earth in a near miss.  Claire, who rationally tried to hold the wedding party together, now starts freaking out about the end of the world and the inevitable death of herself, the world, and her child.  Justine is more nonplussed by the end of the world.

The whole thing takes place on Sutherland’s super fancy estate, which houses an 18-hole golf course of which he is very proud.  Like so much of von Trier’s films, things take place in an isolated setting, in a microcosm rather than in the “real” world.  Unlike his Dogme 95 films, which shunned artifice, von Trier employs visual effects and stages some very painterly sequences of great visual beauty. In this, it resembles Antichrist to a measure.

Supposedly, the film was conceived of as von Trier was going through therapy for a depression that he suffered.  The whole thing, though, seems more metaphorical than literal, though Dunst earned a lot of (pretty well-deserved) kudos for her performance as the woman trying to keep a happy public face as her interior implodes.  I mean, the simple, though perhaps too obvious metaphor of the end of the world, hiding right behind the sun, a planet named for the illness that comes out of hiding and brings people often to their own ends…it’s all right there.

The director also cites German Romanticism as an influence/concept of which the film delves, using Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” as the primary musical motif.  This line of thought is perhaps what led von Trier to make some rather unfortunate statements at Cannes, where the film was debuted last year, seeing in himself something of a Germanic tradition and making a statement about “understanding Hitler”.  What?  Too soon?  Von Trier is a provocateur for certain, probably deals with various mental issues, and is likely one of the more maverick film makers of his generation.   There is always something to be said after watching one of his films.  The provocation is often contemplative.  The thoughts, however, are rarely, “Wow, I can’t wait to see (endure) that again!”

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)

The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) movie poster

director David Lean
viewed:  04/07/2012

Felix picked this one for movie night.  His grandfather had told him about it, saying that it was one of his favorite films.  But perhaps more than any other aspect of his grandfather’s thoughts on David Lean’s 1957 WWII prison camp epic The Bridge on the River Kwai was that his granddad and his friends, inspired by the film as kids, went into the woods and built bridges and blew them up afterwards.  I should note that Felix’s grandfather eventually went on to be an engineer for British Rail, actually working on building bridges.  Not a saboteur.

It was fine with me.  I’d thought of taking the kids to see it at the Castro some months ago.  I prefer to not be the only person suggesting films for the kids.

This is one of those films that seemed to be on so regularly when I was a kid that I don’t know how many times I’d seen it, or if I’d watched it all the way through in any one sitting, or what, but I’d probably seen the final scene, the blowing up of the bridge often enough to feel as familiar as almost any cinema that I can think of.

The story of English, American, Australian, Burmese, Thai, all sorts of soldiers (though mostly British), stuck in a Japanese prison camp in 1943 somewhere in Thailand or Burma, forced to work on a railroad bridge across a river.  When a new group of prisoners comes in, led by Alec Guinness in one of his most signature roles, almost everyone in the camp senses the meeting of an irresistible force against an unmovable object in the battle of wills between Guinness’s Col. Nicholson and Sessue Hayakawa’s brutal Colonel Saito.  Clara very quickly came to hate Saito, his cruelty and severity so starkly on display from the get-go.  But it’s not just the Japanese whose rigor and pride wind up destroying themselves.  When Nicholson wins the first battle of the wills, showing the integrity of the British (perhaps against better judgment or not), he then wants to show further the ability of the British to build a bridge, a one-upsmanship that leads to even greater hubris.

The always great William Holden plays the more callow but still sensible and ultimately noble American, the one man who gets to call a spade a spade as far as self-importance, stiff-upper-lippedness (phew! just typing that was tough), and general blindness to common sense.

The location settings are tremendous, the beauty and wild drama of the landscapes, the exotic flora and fauna that surround all these men, that they hardly take one brief glimpse of.    The cinematography won an Oscar for Jack Hildyard.  This is one of the films that immediately comes to mind in thinking of Lean’s work in epic cinema, the epic breadth not just of story, but of image and setting.  The thing won a bunch of Oscars: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor for Guinness.  This is one of those films that is pretty well just plain great.  One of the films whose greatness is pretty readily obvious to most.  Probably one which you’d find the majority of people would generally agree upon.

The kids liked it, too.  Though perhaps Felix thought that more than one dramatic bridge explosion would happen.  However, that finale is pretty damn awesome in and of itself, a familiar, but brilliant piece of cinema.

Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel (2011)

Corman's World (2011) movie poster

director Alex Stapleton
viewed: 04/06/2012

In the documentary Corman’s World: Exploits of a Hollywood Rebel, it’s suggested at one point that young contemporary film makers might not know who Roger Corman is, partially due to his lack of recognition by The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (though in the duration of the film, he does receive a “lifetime achievement award” from the Academy in 2009).  If recognition by the Academy was the only arbiter of success in cinema, far more than Roger Corman would be conscripted to obscurity.  Up and coming young film makers should know Roger Corman.  They should know a lot of history, classic films, foreign cinema, silent film, the Golden Age, B-movies, everything.  Corman is a key figure in 20th Century American cinema, the birth of independent production, the rise of the B-movies and exploitation of the 1950’s-1970’s, and he gave the first opportunities to major directors and actors of the latter 20th century.

Corman’s World is a good introduction to who Corman is, showing him working on what was at the time his most recent production.  It features interviews with a myriad of actors and directors who owe often some of their first opportunities to the man whose autobiography was titled “How I Made a Hundred Movies in Hollywood and Never Lost a Dime.”  He is definitely as frugal as he is innovative.  But this straight-laced pragmatist, who worked hands on in the wild world of indie and drive-in cheap thrills was right alongside the hippies and the artists who made the influential and important Hollywood films of the 1970’s.   Jack Nicholson chokes up at one point, remembering Corman for giving him work when no one else would.  Martin Scorsese, Ron Howard, Jonathan Demme, Joe Dante, Peter Bogdonavich and many others thanks Corman for giving them their first shots at directing.  His influence was on the industry, not just in artistry.

Corman made some fine films.  His Edgar Allen Poe series in particular.  He also made some pretty awful films.  And lots and lots of films in between.  What he never perhaps aspired to was “great art”, or something personal and sublime.  Scorsese’s story of how he brought him the script for Mean Streets (1973) and Corman thought it would work as a Blacksploitation film.  Scorsese, of course, realized that this wasn’t a compromise that would work and he would go on to define his own voice in cinema by depicting a very personal world, not one that he thought would be marketable.  I love Roger Corman films, but his commitment to the bottom line perhaps tempers even his best work.

More than anything, though, the low-budget camp and experimentation that color his early work is a lost form of cinema itself.  The rubber monsters and DIY analog effects, the guerilla-style married to the monster movie, is just not something made anymore.  And maybe even the world in which people developed their relationships with these types of films, watching either in drive-ins or on broadcast syndication, or stuck in the video store are all forms no longer for getting into the lower tiers of film, the weirder tiers.  The film also ties Corman to a lot of youth culture content, as well as counter-culture content, from biker gangs to LSD, all quite surprising in seeing the straight, well-spoken gentleman himself.

The film breaks no ground on Corman, it’s all been said before.  But it’s a reasonable primer for those uninitiated.  And I certainly don’t doubt that there are those up and comers who could learn a lot from Corman’s story, style, and filmography.