My Life as a Dog (1985)

My Life as a Dog (1985) movie poster

director Lasse Hallström
viewed: 09/22/2012

Back in 1987, I saw My Life as a Dog and totally fell in love with it.  12 year old Ingemar, a rambunctious character who gets into all kinds of good-natured trouble, identifies with all sorts of tragic news stories, most specifically that of Laika, the Russian dog, shot into space, who eventually starved to death.  Ingemar’s mother is dying and he ends up going to live with in the country with his uncle and aunt and an array of characters who populate the town.

There is the green-haired boy.  The old man who has him read to him surreptitiously from lingerie advertisements.  The beautiful blond who brings him along as she poses in the nude for a sculptor to keep things “artistic”.  The man who eternally works on his roofing.  The wacky inventor who builds a rocket ride that breaks down.  And the remarkably cute girl with the short brown hair who likes to pass for a boy so that she can play sport.

It’s bittersweet and funny, quirky and charming.  And I thought it was great.

It is pretty great.  Director Lasse Hallström hit is stride with his gentle storytelling but really had his coup with the casting.  Anton Glanzelius, who played Ingemar, has perhaps one of the cutest, sweetest smiles in all of cinema.  He’s freaking lovable!  And Melinda Kinneman, who played Saga, the tomboy, is terrific and is as cute as girls that age could be.  I think even at that time I wanted to go back and be 12 again just to fall in love with her.

My Life as a Dog isn’t a kids film, but as I’ve been trying to expand our movie-viewing a bit, I thought we’d give it a go.  The other experiment was that we watched it in Swedish, with me reading the subtitles to the kids.  I don’t think that they could keep up with the reading but I wanted to open the experience of listening to another language and thought it’d be worth the go.  It was.  They both enjoyed it, tough Felix noted that it was “pretty sad”, what with Ingemar losing his mother and even more tragically, his beloved dog.

Hallström has gone on to Hollywood, making What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? (1993), The Cider House Rules (1999), and many others, most of which are these family melodramas that are more tinged with the bittersweet.  I’ve always kept My Life as a Dog in a special place.  It’s a sweet film and a good one.  And those kids are some of the most likable children ever to grace the silver screen.

Dredd (2012)

Dredd (2012) movie poster

director Pete Travis
viewed: 09/22/2012 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

In 1983, I was 13-14 and I collected comics.  I remember being in a comic shop in Gainesville, Florida called The Time Machine and overhearing the staff commenting on the release of a new comic, “Oh, I like Judge Dredd. He kills people.”  Interest piqued, I picked up issue #1 of the Eagle Comics reprints of the British sci-fi supercop, and before I’d even finished reading it, I was totally hooked, in no small part to the brilliant art of Brian Bolland and the sardonic future world of Mega City One and Judge Dredd.

As a teen’s life turns to other things, Judge Dredd was one of the last titles that I kept picking up before my money, time, and interest filled with music and girls.

It’s been years since I have read the comics but they still figure prominently in my mind.  So, back in 1995, when the Sylvester Stallone Judge Dredd came out, I skipped it.  No explanation should be necessary.  And yet, when a new take on the character was tapped, I harbored hopes that maybe this time we’d see a film that more successfully captured the comic.

Dredd, as the tersely titled new film is called, re-boots with Alex Garland (28 Days Later… (2002), Sunshine (2007), etc.) writing the script and Karl Urban (who?) filling the boots and helmet.  One  (of many) of the things that perturbed fans in the Stallone debacle was that Dredd’s face is never seen above the upper lip, encased always in the stylized helmet of the judges, but Stallone spent much screen time with his helmet off.  Urban keeps his on and does a very good job with what little range the character allows.  He’s quite a fine Judge Dredd, in that sense.

The world of Dredd is a fantasy nightmare of the Cold War era.  It’s a post-nuclear apocalypse, in which only three “Mega-cities” have survived, while the whole outer world is “The Cursed Earth”, inhabited by a variety of mutants and nutjobs, straight out of Mad Max (1979).  This is the thing about Judge Dredd.  First published in 1977, the character channelled a Dirty Harry (1971) fascist police mentality, and as others have noted, took it to its logical extreme, whose perfect place was a godforsaken future.  The judges are the police force, but they are literally, judge, jury, and executioner, meting out cold, hard justice in a myriad of body bags.  And Judge Dredd, who also springs somewhat from Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name”, is the toughest of the cops, but with a limited, not-really-pertinent-in-all-cases back-story.  He “is The Law”.  That’s all you need to know.

It’s no longer The Cold War, so the social criticism that invested the comics has probably become dated.  So, more than anything, Garland stripped this down, big time, creating a fairly lean, action-filled story in which Dredd is paired with a rookie psychic cop, Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), one of the core set of characters from the comics.  And what they end up going up against is remarkably similar to the Indonesian action film, The Raid: Redemption (2011), in which they enter a towering slum and are locked in a battle with the drug dealer that controls the building, having to fight off just about everybody that lives there.  Since Dredd doesn’t really do martial arts, this is a gun-shooting frenzy, with copious digital blood splattering, bodies piling up, and occasional grotesqueries of squished heads earn its R-rating.

The British production was filmed in South Africa and it has the feel of a less mainstream product.  The effects are quite good (I forwent the 3-D, as I am wont to do), especially the sequences shot when people take the opiate Slo-Mo, in which everything goes…slow motion.  It’s not low-budget but it’s not the same quality of effects you see in, say, The Avengers (2012), but it’s rigorous and entertaining.

For me, the real let-down (though anticipated) was the lack of the comic social criticism of the comic.  Not every story featured it, but Mega-City was defined by its pure over-the-topness.  Gangs were all punk and way out of their heads, but the general populace was filled with all kinds of kooks and weirdos too.  I don’t know how ironic the vigilant iron fist of “The Law” was originally, but I always read it as both a fascist fantasy and comic brutality.  Garland’s script toes the more traditional “action hero” line with occasional quips rather than wacky weirdness.

The film is surprisingly decent.  Supposedly, if it makes enough money, there are two sequels planned, the final one picking up the best of the Judge Dredd storylines, the one including Judge Death.  I hope it comes about and I hope they get to loosen it up a bit more.  I’m driven to dig out my comics and re-acquaint myself with the originals, so my opinion will be better informed if it comes around again, but I’d like to see it.  I’d like to see it done well.

Kill List (2011)

Kill List (2011) movie poster

director Ben Wheatley
viewed: 09/20/2012

A hitman, suffering from some psychological stress, winds up taking another job with his partner, not just one hit, but a “kill list”.  He’s got trouble at home with a volatile, beautiful Swedish wife, and given the aberrant psychology, it’s never all that clear how much his “reality” is purely his, and not the same as the one generally observed by everyone else.  And then, when they get to their victims, it’s clear that he’s got a lot of violence within himself to dole out, sometimes even more than required, knocking off anybody suspected to be affiliated with a snuff film ring, for instance.

The film is by Ben Wheatley, and was getting a lot of buzz in its native Britain.  He’s already got another film out, Sightseers, and has been building a reputation for thriller cum horror.  And based on Kill List, I’d be very open to see what else he might have up his sleeve.

The best thing about Kill List are its plot twists, its blind alleys in regards of the story.  The less you know, the better.  So, if you’re it sounds remotely interesting, you should stop reading this and just see it.  The film doesn’t necessarily achieve greatness, but it shows promise, surprise, cleverness, and good performances.  It’s worth seeing for sure.  And quite gruesome at times.

But it’s a little hard to discuss entirely without spoiling it.  So read on if you will.

The film’s final twist, something that you get some hints of throughout, but really have no idea exactly what’s going on, is that there are a bunch of Satanists at the core of things.  His final hit is upon a “hunchback” who turns out to be his wife with his young son on her cloaked back.  Who he stabs to death in a ring of hooded worshipers.  This evokes some of Britain’s best horror films, such as The Wicker Man (1973) or Witchfinder General (1968), and it’s not exactly what I expected to happen.  But it’s also a bit unsatisfying, to me, at least.

I guess one of the challenges of an unreliable narrator (perspective) type of work is that it’s so often the case that it just turns out that the subject is crazy and his world is a world of madness that that twist is kind of predictable in and of itself.  I still kind of like it as it often offers for disjunctive and unpredictable moments and events, things that come from the unconscious or beyond.  The form itself is inherently oppositional to logic.

Kill List, though, is odd in both tone and style as well as narrative.  It’s mixture of surreal and impressionist reality and depiction, with naturalistic acting and dialogue, really does create something different and unique.  I will certainly be on the lookout for Wheatley’s next films.

Finding Nemo (2003)

Finding Nemo (2003) movie poster

director Andrew Stanton
viewed: 09/15/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

As I’ve stated here in the past, I’m not a fan of 3-D, and so this whole retrofitting of 2-D films with 3-D technology (a la The Lion King (1994)) and releasing them to theaters to make not just “more money” but to make more money by over-charging for the whole thing really sticks in my craw.  I balk at 3-D at every chance I can.  So, when Finding Nemo (2003) was being re-released in 3-D, it wasn’t high on my list of things to do.

But we’re going through one of those “down” periods for films with kids in the cinema, and a Saturday afternoon with nothing better to do rolled along and we found ourselves in West Portal, making up our day as it was going.  Luckily, the early show at the Empire Theater wasn’t even in 3-D, so it was just revisiting a film that I remembered, but the kids didn’t really know all that well.  Clara had seen it in parts.  Felix didn’t remember his first time seeing it (unsurprisingly).

Finding Nemo has worn well in its near decade since release.  The animation and design still looks lush an beautiful, particularly the underwater worlds.  It hasn’t set as well with me over time as a story.  It’s very emotional, yanking at the heartstrings throughout, from the very get-go.  But its charms and its merits are all still intact as well.

Albert Brooks voices Marlin, a single father clownfish who loses his wife and all but one of his offspring before the title sequence comes onscreen.  So, in over-protective kvetchingness, he coddles his little child in a fear of the ocean (the world that they live in).  And when the little guy, Nemo, gets snatched in a net by a diver, the unlikely adventure begins, which takes Marlin out of his element and into the rest of the world in an adventure that proves his love and dedication to his lost son.

The characterization is great, particularly the character of Dory, voiced by Ellen Degeneres, and Bruce, the vegetarian shark (Barry Humphries) is a signature creation.  And the animation, sequences, characterization…it’s all that top of the line work that has defined Pixar as a studio, the gold standard in the digital animation industry.

Director Andrew Stanton would go on to helm WALL-E (2008) and this year’s box office bomb John Carter (2012).  WALL-E and Finding Nemo are now part of Pixar’s cache of “classics”, able to re-capitalized on, sequelized, retrofitted technologically, and re-shown.  The fact is that it’s a good film, a very nice, albeit emotionally heavy-handed, kids film, still very intense and scary and dramatic for tykes, still a good film for most.

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985)

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) movie poster

director Barry Levinson
viewed: 09/14/2012

In canvasing my memory for flicks that the kids would enjoy, Young Sherlock Holmes vaguely came to mind.  All that my recollection had with it was that it was produced by Steven Spielberg and had more than a small portion of an Indiana Jones adventure to it.  That and I recalled thinking it was pretty good.  I didn’t recall that it was directed by Barry Levinson (Diner (1982), The Natural (1984), Bugsy (1991)).  I probably had no idea that it was written by Chris Columbus (Home Alone (1990), Mrs. Doubtfire (1993), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1991)).  And for some reason, I thought it was a little later in the 80’s than 1985.  While that is not much to go on, it was enough to give it a go.

Columbus, who had also written Gremlins (1984) and The Goonies (1985) before going on to a mixed kid-friendly career as a director, puts together a reasonably fun concept.  Instead of meeting as adults as they do in the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle, Sherlock Holmes meets John Watson at boarding school in London, and much like the more recent Sherlock Holmes (2009), modernist or post-modernist adventures ensue.  Of course, under Spielberg’s production, the adventures are crafted much like those of adventure serials and the film is more an Indiana Jones-type adventure, with sword-fighting, hooded villains, and a little bit of mysticism to boot.  Also, like the more recent Holmes, the story of deduction and wit give way to action.

The film opens with a hooded figure blow-darting a man with a hallucinogenic drug that ultimately causes him to kill himself.  The intrigue builds as more men start offing themselves whilst in delusions of madness, including Holmes’ mentor, a wacky old professor who tries to build flying machines.  Really, when the story is finally spelled out, it’s so convoluted that I didn’t bother trying to sort it out for the kids.  It has to do with an ancient Egyptian sect, revenge, virgin sacrifices, and a giant wooden pyramid in Wapping, London.

Maybe the story doesn’t hold up to the concept, but beyond that, it doesn’t seem that Barry Levinson was necessarily the best director for this film.  Perhaps if it was a slightly stronger story, Spielberg would have taken the reins himself, squeezed a little more verve from the young actors, a little more life and magic in the action sequences.  Whatever the case, the film bops along at an entertaining enough pace and is generally pretty fun.  Just not as exciting and memorable as it could have been.

Maybe that’s why most everyone that I mention the film to gives me a searching look of blankness.  Maybe that’s why it fell into the crevasses of my memory rather than staying toward the forefront.

The film also features one of the first CGi action sequences, featuring a stained-glass knight jumping down and attacking a priest.  This was animated by a guy named John Lassiter, an up and comer in computer animation, if there ever was one.

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

The Gay Divorcee (1934) movie poster

director Mark Sandrach
viewed: 09/08/2012

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.  This was the third Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie I’ve watched, the second with the kids.  Clara had really enjoyed Swing Time (1936) and since I had Clara and no Felix this night, I thought we’d try a go again.  We invited a friend over for her to spend the night and set ourselves down to watch and enjoy.

The story, about a guy (Astaire) who falls for a girl (Rogers) who is trying to wrangle herself free from a loveless marriage to a roving archaeologist, is not overly complicated per se, but required a lot more explaining than made for an easy go of it.  See, she’s hired his best pal, the very funny Edward Everett Horton, to find her a fake romantic interloper and pretend to catch her “in flagrante delicto”, giving her grounds for divorce.  But because her aunt fancies Horton and the Italian “Latin lover” pretender is a goof, Rogers thinks that Astaire is the gigolo du jour and, well, it’s a comedy of misunderstandings.

While it features the terrific Cole Porter song “Night and Day” and the big dance number toward the end is the charming “The Continental”, not everything is quite as hummable as it could be.  The dialogue is actually snappy and fun, but snappy and fun for me, a bit over the heads of the 8 and 9 year olds.  Which is fine, just that their interest kind of lagged, and half-way through the film, the girls started playing and paying less attention.  I did try to direct them back to it and Clara’s friend was enjoying it.  Clara was pretty blase about it.

Swing Time was more fun, had better music, too.  But The Gay Divorcee is good fun, at least for me it was.

My Neighbor Totoro (1988)

My Neighbor Totoro (1988) movie poster

directed by Hayao Miyazaki
viewed: 09/08/2012 at the Bridge Theater, SF, CA

The opportunity to see Hayao Miyazaki’s wonderful My Neighbor Totoro on the big screen, that was what this was all about.  The Bridge Theater in San Francisco was (and still is through this week) running a series of Studio Ghibli films, and schedules permitted only Saturday for us, and luckily Totoro was the film of the day.  It showed in both the English dub and alternately in original Japanese with subtitles.  Our timing had the dubbed version showing.

If you’ve never seen, My Neighbor Totoro, you should.  It’s a beautiful, low-key, wonder of a film, one of Miyazaki’s signature creations.  I would even posit that the image of Totoro, standing in the rain at the bus stop next to the young girl Satsuki, with the leaf on his head, accepting her umbrella, is as classic and iconic a moment as Gene Kelley, “Singin’ in the Rain” in Stanley Donen’s thus named film.  There is a magic to the film, plain and simple, a transcendent beauty as inspired and powerful as any in cinema.

It’s a film that I’ve seen many times, in whole and in parts, and Clara has seen it many times as well.  Though never on the big screen.  The crowd in the theater were largely families with young ones, obviously those “in the know” because as much as I read and follow up on what’s happening locally in the cinema, this event came a bit out of nowhere, with little promotion or notability.

Totoro is a simple story, about two young girls who move to the Japanese countryside with their father while their mother convalesces at a nearby hospital from an unnamed illness. What they find in the country is nature itself, the people who work the land, and the spirits of traditional Japanese belief still living within the world in all corners.  They first encounter dust mite spirits, and then eventually are led down (or up) a rabbit hole of sorts to the King Totoro, the spirit of a massive camphor tree at the top of a tall hill nearby.  These spirits befriend the girls, giving literal flight to their dreams, encouraging them to plant more trees, and helping Satsuki find Mei when she gets lost.  It’s a spiritual encounter with nature and tradition, a grounding to culture and the natural world that embodies ethics and kindness as well.

It’s such a quiet and simple film that when I first saw it, I certainly considered that it might be slow or quiet for some.  Watching it again this time, the themes of spiritual embodiment, along with ecology, magic and traditional Japanese culture, things all deeply embedded in his later film Spirited Away (2001) are all deeply imparted here as well.  There is a great beauty beyond the charm here.  It could be critiqued for its yearning to a simpler, more pastoral time (the story is set in an indeterminate past, sometime in the 20th century), which is perhaps more wistful.  But there is magic to it.  There is a transcendence within this little story, these brief moments of fantasy and the beyond.  Most lovely.

Aliens (1986)

Aliens (1986) movie poster

director James Cameron
viewed: 09/06/2012

It was Prometheus (2012) that led me back to Alien (1979) and now Alien back to Aliens.  It’s a slippery slope to open yet another series of films to re-visit in whole.

It’s been said that while Alien was a science fiction/horror film, Aliens is more a science fiction/action film, a genre shift, but one of the most compelling sequels perhaps ever made.  Director James Cameron picked up the narrative from the 1979 original, took (not necessarily its DNA a la Prometheus but) many of the film’s great elements (the alien itself, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), android paranoia, gender politics) and developed a wholly different, extremely thrilling, and even iconic movie from those elements.  And in many ways, the genre reinvention helped to define the film on its own terms, not merely in comparison.

Set fifty-seven years after the first film, fifty-seven years that Ripley and her cat have been in hyper-sleep in the middle of nowhere, Cameron pushes the distance of the real world seven years even further.  The clever set-up has the corporation blaming Ripley for her having destroyed the Nostromo, and not having any evidence of her monster anywhere.  Beyond that, there are humans living on that dead rock that the Nostromo had so fatefully visited.  At least until the humans make “contact” with the creatures and wind up in radio silence.  The corporation sends Ripley, their company man Carter Burke (a classically sleazy Paul Reiser), and a team of space marines, each tougher than the other, to kick ass and take names.  The whole thing kind of implodes.

What has always struck me is how effectively Cameron develops his characters.  It’s his Ripley that one thinks of when one thinks of the character that Weaver plays in four films, not the lucky, survivor of Ridley Scott’s Alien.  Cameron invents the female action hero, quite intentionally, quite effectively.  It’s not that she’s sleek, deadly or muscled-up.  She has not the fighting powers of a video game character.  She’s a working class woman, apparently a mother with a lost child (didn’t know that), maternal, strong in character, tenacious, heroic.  It’s the maternal aspect that sets up the epic showdown at the end of the film.  Ripley finds the lone survivor at the hive-like station in the little child, Newt, who she takes to in lieu of her own child, and she battles the Alien queen, mother to all the drone worker/killers.  It’s not happenstance that her character has become such an icon; she’s strong, intelligent, and real.  And wonderfully created.

I’ve always admired the scene in which the marines first appear, coming out of hyper-sleep, in a deft sequence that telegraphs their personae in flash-like strokes.  The character actors are all very good, and though their characters are hardly well-rounded, they are colorful archetypes, with unique qualities that make them characters, not mere stereotypes.  I’ve always loved how the sergeant (Al Matthews) pops his cigar into his mouth immediately upon waking, before any other movement is needed.  He has a number of little moments that develop his character more than whole scenes would need to do.  Bill Paxton gets all the comedy relief as Hudson, the best catchphrases.  Jenette Goldstein is fantastic as the butch Vasquez, again a character so well-sketched in her few scenes that she stands out in one’s mind years after the film.  And Lance Hendrikson is great as Bishop, the android with a milky heart of gold.

It’s a thrilling, exciting film.  I remember in 1986 taking my girlfriend and her folks to the film (I’d seen it once already) and how they were all surprised how much they liked it.  It stands up well over the years on the whole.  Unfortunately I watched the “Special Edition” version which threw in a few deleted scenes that help explain aspects of the narrative, like Ripley’s daughter, but really lengthen but don’t illuminate the narrative in useful ways.  It’s the Blade Runner (1982) effect.  The one film that really made an argument for a “director’s cut” now entitles all directors a hindsight that often isn’t 20/20.

While it is not a “feminist” film, I would say that it does create a female hero, an iconic female character in a realm of male-dominated action cinema.  It’s not just the sort of Lara Croft, woman with big boobs and hot gams, playing the role according to the script stereotypes.  But a character, originating in Scott’s film, and reaching fuller realization here, a character who is a strong woman, and intelligent woman, maternal, compelling, resilient.  I’m sure many an article or paper has been written on this specific subject, so I won’t try to say things that others have stated already.  But I think it’s a poignant character that Weaver and Cameron developed, and is all the more interesting for the lack of cliches.

Heck of a movie.

Forbidden Zone (1982)

Forbidden Zone (1982) movie poster

director Richard Elfman
viewed: 09/05/2012

I don’t know how I never managed to see nor really ever heard of Forbidden Zone until a few years ago, as it is a 1980’s cult film extraordinaire.  It was directed by Danny Elfman’s older brother, Richard Elfman, who was the founder of the The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, the theater/performance group that would eventually evolve into the 1980’s alternative band.  It features Danny Elfman and others from the group and is a madcap guffaw of cartoon id.

Channeling Fleisher brothers’ Betty Boop cartoons, swing jazz of the 1930’s, doses of Terry Gilliam’s Monty Python’s Flying Circus animation, and straight up hallucinatory insanity, this black and white musical comedy is strange and kitsch and all over the place.  The Forbidden Zone is entered through a door in a crazy house, the sixth dimension, inhabited by a king (Hervé Villechaize) and his queen (Susan Tyrell), an even more twisted, darker Wonderland.  Parts of the film are animated, actually some of the finest parts, but the whole thing is staged on sets right out of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) cum 1930’s Looney Tunes.  Camp and shtick and kitsch galore.

As much as all that description touches on a myriad of styles and forms that I love, I was surprised that I didn’t like the film more.

Aspects of it a brilliant.  It’s kind of brilliant merely in the fact of its creation and being.  I certainly can think of nothing remotely like it.  It would have been quite the strange delight in the 1980’s.

Headhunters (2011)

Headhunters (2011) movie poster

director Morten Tyldum
viewed: 09/03/2012

Headhunters is a Norwegian crime thriller, which I would suggest as a sort of post-Pulp Fiction (1994) sense of comedy, irony and gruesome violence to stretch its genre conventions.  Adapted from the novel, Hodejegerne, by Jo Nesbø, it’s had a popular run in both Norway and in the states, and is unsurprisingly being re-adapted for an American remake.

It’s the story of a top recruiter or “headhunter,” Roger Brown (Aksel Hennie), who leads a double life as an art thief, all to support his big blond trophy wife.  When he ends up crossing the wrong client, things head south in a series of brutal, surprising twists (which I’ll try not to reveal here).  He goes pretty far afield in what turns out to be a brutal, at times comic, series of events.

Ultimately, it’s the story of a painstakingly refined hot shot who has carved himself a slick life who learns how fragile his situation is.  Not just fragile, but a hair’s breadth above hell.  He ultimately comes to learn a thing or two about himself and his life…or does he?  The thing about Roger Brown is that, like the bland falseness of his name, he’s not a terrible sympathetic character.  He’s shallow, self-important, and glib.  He kind of deserves whatever comes of him in the bad ways that it does.  And so throughout the film, he’s hard to root for.  Maybe he’s not meant to be that sympathetic, but as a character painted in that way, it leaves a level of distance as he falls down the rabbit hole.

The other characters are sort of flat as well, so maybe it is some aspect of failing on the film.  When it’s at its best, it is unflinchingly brutal, featuring some pretty funny plot turns.  For my money, it’s okay, not great, not bad, nothing to write home about.