The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971)

The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971) movie poster

director Robert Fuest
viewed: 10/26/2012

Earlier this year, I decided that it was important for my kids to know who Vincent Price was.  And as October/Halloween is always our annual horror film fest (of sorts), what better time than now to explore some more of the great Mr. Price’s films?

The Abominable Dr. Phibes is an odd film and perhaps an odd film to choose to watch with the kids but when I was a kid, I had a board game called “Creature Features” which was like Monopoly but you bought “classic” monster movies and instead of houses and hotels, you got the stars of those films.  And while most of the films were true classics, like Frankenstein (1931), Dracula (1931), or The Wolf-Man (1941), The Abominable Dr. Phibes was on there too.  And it took a long time for me to finally see it.

It’s odd because it isn’t part of any “classic” pantheon, and it’s odd because it’s just plain odd.  It’s a revenge film.  Dr. Phibes cleverly murders his wife’s 9 (or 10) doctors who failed to save her life.  What’s “clever” about these murders is that they play out via the 10 plagues of Egypt: boils, bats, frogs, blood, hail, rats, beasts, locusts, the death of the first born, and ultimately darkness.  And Rube Goldberg or even MacGyver would be impressed with his lugubrious means to his end.

Phibes himself is odd.  Vincent Price appears in an odd wig, and is only able to speak by plugging a cord into the side of his neck, booming out on a Victrola.  He has a beautiful mute assistant and a bizarrely Art Deco home fitted with life-sized automatons who perform music.  It’s only revealed in the very end that his human face hides a mucky skeletal head, the result of an automobile accident (in which he was thought to have died).

There is a very camp sensibility in the film.  Not just the absurdities, but even Scotland Yard officers on the case are portrayed as comically bumbling buffoons. Joseph Cotton is the other big name in the cast, the main doctor on Mrs. Phibes’ case.  He’s the only one who plays the whole thing “straight”.

And the other funny thing is that Phibes isn’t entirely justified in his scheme.  It’s not clear that the doctors did anything wrong, that they had any power to keep her alive.  But it’s with Phibes that the audience is set to identify.  And while some of his schemes are gruesome, they are also clever and kind of fun.

The film was a minor success in its day and led to a sequel, Dr. Phibes Rises Again (1972), which we watched right after. It also, I believe, inspired another Vincent Price film that I remember liking called Theater of Blood (1973) in which Price plays an actor who kills his critics according to the seven deadly sins.

The kids enjoyed the film.  As did I.  It’s not really scary.  More funny.  And fun.

The Snowtown Murders (2011)

The Snowtown Murders (2011) movie poster

director Justin Kurzel
viewed: 10/21/2012

Based on the grisly true events of serial murder in South Australia in the 1990’s, The Snowtown Murders is a naturalistic, gritty portrayal of human evil.  The unusual thing about these serial crimes was that while it was driven by a single man, several people were complicit in the murders, quite a-typical of serial killers generally speaking.  But in sitting down to watch the film, I had kind of forgotten a good deal of the facts of the crimes and was watching with relative ignorance of what was to come.   Which is typically a good thing.

Watching The Snowtown Murders, though, it might help to know a bit more about the story ahead of time.  While it’s hardly any artsy stream-of-consciousness or non-linear narrative, the story is also not spelled out so explicitly that you’d necessarily understand the scope of the crimes or the significance of some of them.

Director Justin Kurzel,using mostly non-professional actors from the area of the film’s events, does a good job depicting a sense of menace in place and character, amid the poverty and mean times of the story.  Lucas Pittaway is one of the non-professional cast, playing James Vlassakis, a teenage boy drawn into different levels of human horror by different crimes and different criminals.  James and his younger brothers are sexually abused and exploited by a neighbor friend of their mother’s.  This spawns an assault of retribution, but not from the boys themselves, but from his mother and her eventual boyfriend, John Bunting (played by Daniel Henshall).

Bunting is the prime instigator.  Inspired by his homophobia and hatred for pedophiles, Bunting gave himself (and others) lease to mete out perceived justice in the form of torture killings of anyone to whom he took a dislike.  Kurzel depicts James at the center of the story, young, meek, and confused, in a world of tough places and brutal male role models.  Not many would be more brutal than Bunting.

Over a period of a number of years, Bunting and his crew tortured and killed at least 12 people, dragging James along, even killing James’ half-brother Troy, who had also sexually molested James.  It’s a gruesome story, sad and brutal.  But afterward, I found myself wanting to know what really happened.  Some of the things happen in stretches of time that mask the reality of it all.  And while the acting and overall film are good, I never got a good grasp on the whole.  Which I found myself wanting.  And which Wikipedia served to clarify.

Australia is like an alternate reality America in a lot of ways.

Psycho (1960)

Psycho (1960) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 10/20/2012

I’ve been a bit late to the game in queueing up good horror film fare for October, the month of Halloween, but that’s not to say that I haven’t been planning some.   Somewhere in the more subversive parts of my mind, I decided that it was prime time to introduce the kids to Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, Psycho.

Was it only a year ago that I was admonished for thinking of showing them The Birds (1963)?  For actually showing them Poltergeist (1982)?  And The Bad Seed (1956)?

Is it appropriate for every 8 year old and 11 year old to watch these films?  Not necessarily.  Frankly, Poltergeist is the one that they still talk about.  It could be a lot worse.

When I ended up watching The Birds on my lonesome last year, I made the realization that I hadn’t seen a Hitchcock film in the years that I’d been keeping this diary.  Which is kind of odd.  Because when a friend of mine in film school mentioned that he was writing about Hitchcock for his thesis and I suggested that at least made for a topic for which there was a good deal of reference material, he was surprised.  Really?  A lot written about Hitchcock?  Are you kidding me?

Maybe it is me and my odd journey toward film studies that I think one of the first books that I ever read related to film studies was Truffaut’s Hitchcock (1985).  Somewhere in the back of my brain ever since has lingered Truffaut’s analysis of films like Psycho.  In fact, I think that even in this current watching of the film I was reminded of “bird” imagery in Hitchcock’s films, how they represented “chaos” and how symbolic it was for Norman Bates to have a multitude of taxidermy birds in his “parlor” and that his first victim is named Marion Crane.

It’s all part of why I wanted to introduce the kids to Hitchcock and one of the world’s most famous films.  It’s part of having a background of experience of originary material.  Being familiar with a source of cultural reference and having first-hand knowledge of what “Hitchcock” is.

My last viewing of Psycho was in film school.  I think someone was showing the first part of the film as an example of something, perhaps “the male gaze” but what struck me so intensely was the utter control of the viewer by the director.  While you can set up a camera anywhere and film and capture things more or less “by accident”, there is nothing accidental in Hitchcock, particularly so in Psycho.  The viewer is keyed into what Hitchcock wants you to be focused on, drawing the viewer along not unlike a ride in an amusement park, prepping one for the shocks and plot twists as they come round the bend.

The inherent morbid humor and Freudian innuendo comes to the fore.  From Norman suggesting that “mother isn’t herself today” to his absolute cower in the face of entering Marion’s room, where the bed is clearing sitting.  The nuance of that ride is as pleasurable as ever, especially for those who enjoy such frightening things, particularly the black comedy therein.

What’s funny is how un-shocking it is by today’s standards.  In fact, to keep the plot twists in place, which is key to enjoying the film for a first-timer, I had to keep dissuading the kids from asking too many questions and repeatedly said, “just watch it!”  And that would be my advice to the novices out there who have never seen Psycho.  Sadly enough more are born every day and more unlikely to appreciate it.  For those who have seen it, most likely you saw it in a place and time when it had the power and ability to shock and surprise you, reason enough not to delve into plot detail here.

The kids both enjoyed it.  It will be interesting to see how it sits with them over time.  And less so whether I catch some hell over showing it to them.

The Master (2012)

The Master (2012) movie poster

director Paul Thomas Anderson
viewed: 10/06/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Before There Will Be Blood (2007), I’d been pretty ambivalent about Paul Thomas Anderson.  From his first feature, Hard Eight (1996) (which I feel inclined to check out) to Boogie Nights (1997), Magnolia (1999),  Punch Drunk Love (2002) through to There Will Be Blood, he’s been a director to watch in Hollywood.  There Will Be Blood stayed with me, enough that even four years later, it’s still ringing in my ears.  So the thought of him taking on Scientology in some capacity suggested something intriguing.

Much has been debated before The Master was released.  The titular “Master” is Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a self-proclaimed writer/astrophysicist/philosopher who founds his own system of belief which he calls “The Cause”.  He’s modeled on L. Ron Hubbard, and where there is Scientology or critique of Scientology, there is often media fire.  But the film isn’t so much a critique of Scientology, even if the film suggests that Hoffman’s character is making it up as he’s going along.  The fact is, it’s not Scientology, and Scientology is not Anderson’s interest.

Anderson is interested in the post-WWII America, a place of moral ambiguity, lost souls, opportunistic beliefs systems, pop psychology, and dissociation.  The Master follows Freddie Quell, the character played by Joaquin Phoenix, an inveterate drunk, a broken slob, the ultimate “project” for The Cause in the eyes of Dodd.

But really, The Master is a love story.  A love story between Dodd and Quell.  The love is a Platonic one, but more man to man than father to lost son.  Dodd’s wife, played by Amy Adams, realizes this and sets boundaries for Dodd throughout, recognizing the potential destructive nature of Quell’s doomed, dooming influence.  It’s not simply that he makes booze from turpentine and gets him drunk.  He’s tapped out, truly a lost cause.

It’s interesting because while The Cause, playing along the lines of Scientology, uses therapeutic methods, mixed with whacked science, isn’t really that far fetched from other forms of psychological therapy.  Perhaps it lacks the rigor of science, but it’s arguably as effective as psychoanalysis proved to be in A Dangerous Method (2011).  The post-war reality of psychosis only first became well-documented after WWI.  Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, today’s nomenclature for such trauma, which is arguably still not well understood today, was far from having any support or understanding.  And as kooky as some of the therapies or pseudosciences were, some form of talking therapy was probably of some true efficacy then.

Anderson seems to think so.  Quell’s ills are quelled by Dodd’s friendship and talks.  He does improve.  But he’s got a lot of issues and an insane alcoholism.

Anderson is interested in this period, arguably perhaps not just historically but as a parallel for the America of today.  With many war-torn veterans and somewhat adrift, is it an apt metaphor for now?

The Master was interesting, moving, thought-provoking.  It struck me nowhere as profoundly as Anderson’s prior film.  It might be part of a bigger picture as Anderson continues to make films.  It features great performances by Hoffman and Phoenix.  I’m sure they’ll be talking about it come awards season.

I don’t know.  I’m still sitting with it, I think.

Klown (2010)

Klown (2010) movie poster

director Mikkel Nørgaard
viewed: 10/03/2012

The comedy of discomfort and awkwardness, a trail blazed in the last two decades from Seinfeld to Curb Your Enthusiasm to Girls and on and on.  The comedy of crass overstatement, images more shocking than things one would imagine seeing anywhere before the internet…well, you tell me.  There is probably a study of outre crassness.  It’s probably even something that could be graphed.  But you mix those two elements together into a feature film based on a Danish television comedy and you wind up with Klown…or perhaps something like Klown.

Most frequently compared to the American film The Hangover (2009) because that film featured debauchery and a few shocks, Klown has already been optioned for an American remake.  Will they show images of a child’s small penis being held up for comic photography by his caregivers?  What flies in Europe is still different than what flies in the United States.  But some aspects of comedy are certainly transcendent of language and relative differences in culture.

Frank Hvam and Casper Christensen play alternative reality versions of themselves.  Christensen is remorselessly horny and overconfident has booked the two pals on a “tour de pussy”, a canoe trip that includes a stop at a one-night brothel to beat all brothels.  Hvam is more pure schmuck, trying to prove to his girlfriend that he’s got some parenting skills, so he kidnaps a 13 year old goofball and tries to show his stuff.  Crucifying morality, hypocrisy, and decency, Klown puts these guys in increasingly “out there” situations, building inevitably to a point when something has got to give.

Ultimately, there’s a soft, chewy center to the heart of the film.  While Christensen goes on horndogging it and Hvam persists in his naive dopishness, something is learned.  There is the traditional narrative range and culmination, where though not all wrongs are righted, somebody learns something and grows (however microscopically) more adult.

Bottom line: Is it funny?  Yes. And yes to a lesser degree.  It has some moments.  But what is often the case in comedy that “pushes the envelope” and shocks for comic effect, comedy relies quite strongly on shocks and embarrassment, and not enough on just being funny.  And while it’s funny, it’s not hysterically so and I found myself kind of thinking it could have been better.

Looper (2012)

Looper (2012) movie poster

director Rian Johnson
viewed: 09/30/2012

Time travel stories can make you feel loopy, head-tripping on trying to understand the ramifications of things.  Writer/director Rian Johnson’s Looper mostly avoids the more arcane aspects of time travel explication, though it is indeed key to the story, a story set in a not too distant future as well.

Johnson, who came on the scene with 2005’s Brick, the “film noir in high school” and followed it up with The Brothers Bloom (2008) a comic con-man film, really hadn’t hit a home run yet, but still showed a lot of promise.  As a writer/director who is actually crafting original ideas (creativity being an ironically challenged aspect in Hollywood), he may be one of the current best bets for a potentially remarkable career.  And Looper looked to be his best film yet.  And I think it probably is.

Starring his Brick lead, Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is also becoming one of the actors who seems to pretty consistently select interesting roles with good directors), Looper is science fiction with a lot of crime/noir elements providing the major genre elements.  Gordon-Levitt plays Joe, a hired killer for the mob, whose job is to shoot hooded guys who suddenly pop up in a cornfield, who have been transported from the further future for execution.  You see, in the future of 2044 (Joe’s present), time travel hasn’t been invented, but in 30 years it will be and its primary use is for this form of assassination.

Loopers, as the assassins are called, ultimately are faced with assassinating themselves, closing “the loop” of their existence.  And this is where Bruce Willis comes in.  He’s future Joe, who has come back to right wrongs and avenge a woman he loves.  Jeff Daniels is Abe, the mastermind from the future, who runs the show.  And Emily Blunt shows up as an unlikely farmer aimed at protecting her psychically powerful son, who may or may not be the future of death and destruction.

So much for keeping the story simple.

It’s an original story in a not very original year in films.  And it’s a good movie.  I would probably posit it’s Johnson’s best yet, though Brick might be worth revisiting.  I certainly consider Looper to be one of the better new films that I’ve seen this year.  And I certainly will look forward to Rian Johnson’s future films and continued evolution as a filmmaker.

The Goonies (1985)

The Goonies (1985) movie poster

director Richard Donner
viewed: 09/28/2012 at McCoppin Square, SF, CA

The Goonies.  An all-time favorite of yours?  Certainly, it seems, it’s an all-time favorite for any number of people who caught it in their childhood and connected with it like a home run.

It’s a curious thing, which I’ve noted over time, that I think I must have missed the age cut-off for that connection, though probably not by a whole lot.  As it’s a Steven Spielberg production (though directed by Richard Donner), I find myself on the Spielberg timeline realizing that I was totally into his films (directed or produced) from Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982), Poltergeist (1982), Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983), Gremlins (1984), Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), and Back to the Future (1985).  The kids and I had just watched Young Sherlock Holmes (1985), which I recalled liking, if not overly so.  I recall seeing his film The Color Purple (1985), though I kind of recall seeing that with a girlfriend.  By this point in time, I was 16.

And while I continued to enjoy a number of films he produced or directed before and since, I guess the cut-off line for me was The Goonies.  Over the years, I’ve probably lost sight of whatever it was that seemed lame about it to me.  Some of it was doubtlessly the commercialism of it at the time with Cyndi Lauper and all the MTV tie-ins, the re-use of Ke Huy Quan (Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) as Richard “Data” Wang, and just not connecting with any of the characters.  I’ve always been willing to chalk it up to my own having become a sourpuss.

But it was playing in the neighborhood park as the final film of a late summer series aimed at kids and kids-at-heart.  And it was Felix’s birthday, so we ventured out into the incredible Sunset neighborhood fog, behind the Parkside library, and watched it with a bunch of people in the chill of the night.

I really hadn’t seen it again since its original release.  The cast is actually pretty good with Corey Feldman, Martha Plimpton, Josh Brolin and Sean Astin, as well as Ke Huy Quan (he’s cute) and Jeff Cohen, who played Lawrence “Chunk” Cohen (the fat kid).  The villains, Anne Ramsey, Joe Pantoliano, and Robert Davi are good too.  It’s quite a credit to the casting that so many of those people are still known actors nearly 30 years later.

The story is like something that Scooby-Doo‘s creators would have rejected for its amazing implausibility.  And I never liked the mutant man-child “Sloth” with his folding ears and goofball voice.  And even though the kids are good, Cohen as “Chunk” is probably the best, there are likability issues.

Watching it now, I appreciate it more.  And I can even appreciate why some people like it more than I do.  I still absolutely cite having hit some random cut-off age as a teen as to why it didn’t seem like one of cinema’s greatest gifts to me, while so many other people think it’s such an enduring classic.  Even now, I can see why people like it, but it’s not a great movie.  Spielberg made and produced lots better before and since.

My kids enjoyed it pretty well.  They’d seen it before, with someone who had had more enthusiasm for it.  It got positives.  Okays.

Going to the outdoor movies, cold as it was, was still quite a success.  I hope the Parkside Neighborhood Group does it again next year.

Essential Killing (2010)

Essential Killing (2010) movie poster

director Jerzy Skolimowski
viewed: 09/24/2012

Essential Killing, a Polish “political thriller”, isn’t a film for those who like their narratives and character definitions clearly delineated.  It’s a film in which the main character never speaks a word, so outside of some impressionistic flashbacks, his story, while given some subjectivity, is hardly spelled out and isn’t entirely knowable.

The film opens with a couple of Americans in some unspecified desert location, scoping about with one American soldier and being tracked by a military helicopter.  What they are doing, looking for something, isn’t really clear, but what they find, a bearded, barefoot, apparently Islamic man, panicking in a crevasse, who winds up ambushing them and blowing them away.  He’s then bombed from above and captured by the Americans.

Deafened by the bombing, he doesn’t respond to interrogation or torture and is shipped off to a wintry Polish countryside where the Americans have a prison.  When his transfer vehicle crashes, he escapes into the wild, but not before killing a couple more soldiers, stealing their clothes and vehicle.  The rest of the film, he’s on the run from the American troops, like some contemporary Jack London figure, eating bark off trees, killing, eating, surviving.

That this fighter is played by American Vincent Gallo and that he never speaks, we don’t really know who he is or why he does what he does.  Is he a trained killer?  Is he a native to the unnamed Islamic country?  Is he a fighter or just frightened and surviving like an animal?  Is he potentially like John Walker Lindh, the “Marin Taliban”, a transplant?  He manages to not be overly daunted by the snow and seems to have some survival skills.

The levels of sympathy that he could evoke vary with his killings.  It’s never clear if he’s acting entirely out of fear or if he has some sense of what he’s doing.  His palpable terror could go either way.  And the ending is equally open-ended.

For me, open-endedness is not an decisive problem.  It does make it hard to empathize, to know where to invest one’s emotional connection, which is such inherent characteristic of narrative cinema.  The film, as adventure and drama, is effective but not enthralling.  How much of this is intentional, I don’t know.  In those “man versus nature” types of thrillers, generally the audience is called upon to root for the human, particularly in a case where he is hunted by an army.

It’s interesting.  Perhaps more theoretically than really.  We don’t know how “essential” his killing really is.  I don’t know how essential this film is.  It’s not bad.