The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953)

The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T (1953) movie poster

director Roy Rowland
viewed: 12/28/2012

As fantastic as it looks from many stills taken from it, The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T, the only feature film ever written by Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss) is almost of a great thing.

It takes place mostly in a dream of Bart Collins, a whacked-out version of his reality in which his overbearing piano teacher, Dr. Terwilliker (the inimitable Hans Conried), runs an institute to crush all other musical instruments, launching a performance by 500 boys (thus the 5,000 fingers) on a humongous piano.  Bart’s mom is hypnotized to help him and only his neighborhood plumber, who he craves to fill in as his missing father figure, is around to potentially help him.

The sets are the real star here, though the costumes are sometimes as good.  It’s Dr. Seuss, people.  It looks fantastic, especially in stills or screen-captures, there are images galore to inspire and amuse.

But it’s a musical too, with mostly middling songs.  The best number takes place in the dungeon, where all other instruments and musicians have been sent.  The play on a variety of Seussian instruments in a number that is as much a dance piece as musical piece.

There are certain flashes of brilliance, the elevator to the dungeons, with the operator singing out the specialties of each floor as in an old department store: “Jewelry department. Leg chains, ankle chains, Neck chains, wrist chains, thumb screws, And nooses of the very finest rope.”

But for the most part, it’s a kind of flat near miss.  It’s a cult film, deservedly so, for the nuggets of gold within it are best mined by the very passionate.

Clara and I watched it together.  She thought it was okay.  I had my mixed feelings as described above.

North by Northwest (1959)

North by Northwest (1959) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 12/28/2012 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

On a bit of an epic drive to end out the movie-going year for 2012, I scheduled a number of trips to the Castro for some classic films with the kids.  It had been decades since I had seen Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest and after watching Psycho (1960) with the kids earlier this year, I thought it a decent idea to catch a few more Hitchcocks before too long.  So this seemed an apt outing.  Clara ended up doing something else, so it was just Felix and me.

Often cited as the template for the Hollywood action film of years and years to come, North by Northwest is one of those films that makes “Best of All-Time” lists.  And it’s quite great.

Cary Grant is typically impeccable with his comic timing in his terse and tense moments as the “wrong man” hunted by bad spies and sent looking for the mysterious man for whom he’s been mistaken.  Taking up with the very pretty Eva Marie Saint, parrying with James Mason and Martin Landau, he treks from New York City to Chicago to South Dakota to the faces of Mount Rushmore in one of cinema’s classic classic iconic iconic moments.  Actually, this film has more than a few of them.  And that’s no doubt part of why it’s such a traditional favorite.

Felix found it a little hard to follow, but he liked it pretty well.  It’s true, any time you have double agents, microfilm (what’s that? says a child of this century), and some rapid paced dialogue, it’s easy to get left behind on what’s happening.

I take it back.  I think the last time I saw this film was in film school, so, probably about 15 years ago.  The key memory I have of it from that time was the final shot of the film.  Too much Freudian analysis (or maybe just the right amount of it) makes the punchy final image of the train zooming into the tunnel as we cut away from Cary and Eva Marie as they settle into their nuptial bed aboard the interstate train came as downright hysterical.

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970)

Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) movie poster

director Jaromil Jireš
viewed: 12/27/2012

This is one far-out flick.

I can’t seem to recall where I stumbled onto the recommendation for this, but it was a good one.  Czech director Jaromil Jireš presents a rich and very weird fantasy cum horror coming-of-age film.

It all starts with menstruation, magic earrings, horny priests, vampires, and incest.  Or at least with menstruation.  The onset of adulthood, subtly depicted in blood dripping onto a daisy, casts the 13-year-old Valerie into the strange world of adult sexuality and familial truths.

Frankly, it wouldn’t do any good to try and explain the narrative.  It’s very dream-like, drifting, Surreal.  Images of a creepy “monster” called Weasel is a sort of 1970’s, furry-eared Nosferatu.   Grandma sells herself for her youth, Valerie’s semi-John Lennon-looking “brother”, Eagle, is the only one really looking out for the teenage beauty, who also witnesses many scenes of odd sexuality.

Played by the then 13-year-old Jaroslava Schallerová, Valerie is a lovely “Alice in Wonderland,” tripping through the daisies, the devils, the dreams, catching glimpses of sex, death, and beauty in this very wild, fantastic film.  Really quite something.

Django Unchained (2012)

Django Unchained (2012) movie poster

director Quentin Tarantino
viewed: 12/25/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Love him, hate him, feel ambivalence to him, Quentin Tarantino inspires a variety of responses, usually strong and pointed.  His revisionist Western about a freed slave turned bounty hunter, Django Unchained, will keep those emotions strong, though you might shift your position one way or another.

For me, it’s the most inspired big theatrical release of the year.

What’s inspired about it is the entire concept.  A revenge film about a freed slave empowered to high gun-slinging cowboy hero, shot in a style heavily informed by the Spaghetti Westerns of the 1960’s and 1970’s, it’s an anachronistic fantasy, absurd and yet profound, and more than anything, quite damn entertaining.

The Western genre represents a classic form of American drama and identity, defined from the end of the period itself in cheap magazines and novels and quickly taken up in cinema.  It’s a genre that started with the general heroism of European settlers taming the Wild West, fighting the brutal land and the native peoples who lived there, as well as the best and worst of human character in battles between the good, bad, and ugly.

And until the 1960’s, this was a white man’s version of America.  Even in films that were subversive or culturally critical, the fact of the matter stood that the heroes were white, no matter what color they wore.  Revisionist Westerns, which began in the 1960’s started to take up the mantle of the Native Americans, no longer purely posing them as savage villains but trying to begin to accept the reality of what was America’s first most atrocious defining reality: not simple mistreatment and misrepresentation, but the genocide that cleared the West for “American” settlers from sea to shining sea.

While it’s doubtful that the Western has ever come to full terms with that, revisionism to the classic and codified tropes of cinema for this genre opened doors for other angles as well.  But outside of Mel Brooks’ satire Blazing Saddles (1972), I can’t think of another important Western that really dealt with an African American protagonist in this largely historical genre.  Many films have been centered around pre- and post- and during the Civil War, but slavery as a key topic is most unusual.

Why I call Tarantino’s “Spaghetti Western” conceit inspired is that it gives license to the story to not have to hew to utter historical truths.  Adding in a musical score featuring funk and hip-hop, he rises above mere meta-commentary, film referencing and, much like he did in Inglourious Basterds (2009), with his fantasy revenge of Jews massacring Nazis in World War II, he sets a stage for a radical narrative in a world of mixed history and “truthiness”.

The criticism that has arisen about his use of the word “nigger” in Django Unchained seems incredibly off the mark.  The world depicted here, the pre-Civil War South is the place that such an epithet was defined, and as ugly as it is to hear it, it’s probably one of the more close to historical truth aspects of the film rather than unpleasant indulgence as it was in his contemporary film Jackie Brown (1997).  It’s far more fantastic, this whole concept of this German dentist turned pro-emancipation bounty hunter, than the commonality of that word in that period in that place.

It’s a radical concept, this film, and more than anything, it’s funny, brutal, clever, surprising, inventive, and exciting.

Jamie Foxx is great as Django, as Christopher Waltz is as Dr. King Schultz.  But Leonardo DiCaprio gets the best role as the juicy horrible slave owner Calvin Candide.  Samuel L. Jackson is also fantastic in his role as Candide’s head house slave, with his own virulent racism and complex relationship with the worst people in the film.

I have to say that this is probably the best new film that I’ve seen in 2012.  Tarantino is suggesting that he wants to step down from film-making before he starts to “get old” and start turning out lame films as many of his hero directors did.  But oddly enough, it seems that he’s actually at the top of his game at the moment, tapping into things that somehow touch on much more profundity than arguably his earlier films did.

This is a very good film, I think.  A clever, inventive, inspired concept, executed aptly and beautifully.  One of the best trips to the theater in a long while.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 12/24/2012 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Firstly, you have to accept that this three-hour film is the initial film of a three movie adaptation of a moderate-length novel.  The fact that Peter Jackson decided to take The Hobbit to such great “lengths”, not just two films but three, with a guesstimate total running time of 9 hours, while he managed to make the much longer three novels of The Lord of the Rings into three long movies…  It’s a level of indulgence that is difficult to get over.  But that is what you have to do, that is, if you’re going to watch it.  Because The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is indeed a three-hour part one that includes about half of the book.

I’ve got to assume that you know the story.

Supplemental to the narrative, Jackson adds a significant preamble, with the elderly Bilbo putting pen to paper to write his story of his adventure.  So the film doesn’t even get going for about 15 or 20 minutes.  And most significantly, there is an entire subplot about a one-armed orc who killed Thorin’s grandfather (and who Thorin disarmed) who is hunting and battling Thorin (probably throughout the trilogy).

You see, I utterly think that this film would have benefited to sticking to the original narrative and not trying to bulk up the whole and keeping it a lot tighter.  I just read The Hobbit with the kids earlier this year, so I’m more familiar with the novel now than I would have been overall.  And I’m forced to acknowledge the biggest issue with Jackson’s adaptation, which is its length and segmentation.

Outside of that, it’s actually pretty good.  Like his LOTR series, the designs and attention to details in creating the world of J.R.R. Tolkein’s Middle Earth is downright exquisite.  Casting is largely fantastic, most especially Martin Freeman as “the hobbit” himself.  He’s quite a wonderful Bilbo.  Just looking at each of the dwarfs, it’s easy to see how much love and invention went into their rather baroque designs.  And the New Zealand settings that fill in for the images of the world of the film are amazing too.

I saw it with the kids and they enjoyed it too.  Clara was a little restless.  Who could blame her?  At least we weren’t sitting in the full marathon of the entire narrative.

But my other biggest criticism is in part of the change to the narrative.  With the added orc storyline, the dwarfs, Bilbo, and Gandalf find themselves treed by not the goblins as in the book but by the orcs.  And since, I suppose, Jackson thought we needed more drama than the mere rescue of the group by giant eagles, we get the first showdown between Thorin and the one-armed orc in which Thorin is nearly killed.  He is instead rescued by Bilbo, who knocks the orc down.

The problem with this is the whole nature of the character of Bilbo.  He’s a coward and a bit of a pacifist.  He has a few moments of action, but he’s much more of a guy of wits and complaints.  His most heroic moment in the book is in the freeing of the dwarfs from the spiders (which is due for the next film).  And in the end, it’s his pluck, cleverness, faithfulness and bravery that earn him Thorin’s deathbed acclaim (at the very end).  But here he gets a flash of David versus Goliath heroism and praise to help round out the first movie with a sort of upbeat ending.

I’ve got less complaint about the other changes but changing the nature of the main character in this way seems to cheapen the story even more than the extension and epic epicness of the length that Jackson takes his version of the film.

It’s a great book, a great story.  It’s cool to see it visualized with such appreciation and detail.  And it’s entertaining.

But it’s long.  And this is only a third of the film/story.

Monsters, Inc. (2001)

Monsters, Inc. (2001) movie poster

director Pete Docter
viewed: 12/22/2012 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Next to The Incredibles (2004), Monsters, Inc. is likely Pixar’s 2nd best film.  Clara had never seen it.  She loved it.  Big time.  Great characters, designs, clever, funny concept.  Excellent stuff.  ‘Nuff said.

The Twelve Chairs (1970)

The Twelve Chairs (1970) movie poster

director Mel Brooks
viewed: 12/21/2012

After watching Young Frankenstein (1974) with Clara the other day, I bethought myself that it would be interesting to watch some other Mel Brooks films.  I’d maintained for some years a preference for The Producers (1968) and The Twelve Chairs as my favorite of Brooks’ films.  I guess that’s something that I’ll have to reconsider.

Adapted from the Russian novel by Ilf and Petrov, which I’ve heard is a good read, the story follows three conniving fellows in early Soviet Russia all seeking some lost jewels that have been sewn into the seat of a chair, one of a set of twelve, from a dining room set.  Ron Moody plays the down on his luck aristocrat who teams up, against his will with the sly and clever Frank Langella, a crafty scam artist to hunt the chairs.  Dom DeLuise is a priest turned bandit who is racing them for the prize (when he is told of it in a death-bed confession).

It’s slapstick comedy, with a big dose of Vaudeville, broad and at times antic.  Most hilarious are the variety of bad Russian accents.  Everybody seems to have a different one, except for Langella and DeLuise, who just use their normal voices.

The last time I saw this film, which I reckon was over 20 years ago, I thought it was hilarious.  This time, I thought it was funny.  Not hilarious.  DeLuise is the funniest, has the most overt and ridiculous moments, gets to play to his strengths more than anyone else.  It’s a little odd because it’s the sort of shtick that he would carry on with throughout his career to the point that it was less funny and more just “Dom DeLuise”, but here, he’s very funny.

The kids were not overly impressed.  Clara liked it. Felix thought it wasn’t incredibly original (certainly one of the risks when going back to more original material that is a style that’s been usurped by many over the years.)  But I had to agree with them.  I asked Clara which was more funny, The Twelve Chairs or Young Frankenstein.

Hands down, Young Frankenstein.  But still, pretty fun.

V/H/S (2012)

V/H/S (2012) movie poster

directors Adam Wingard, David Bruckner, Ti West, Glenn McQuaid, Joe Swanberg, Radio Silence
viewed: 12/20/2012

V/H/S is an anthology-style horror compendium with its distinction being that all of the films are shot in the “faux found footage” style.  With different directors for each segment, the film also features a central, framing narrative in which a group of thieves/miscreants search a house for a specific VHS tape.  The short films are shown as scenes watched by the guys as they look for their film.

So, like the “film within a film” motif, we now have “faux found footage” within “faux found footage”.

The thing is, and maybe it’s just that I limited my reading about the film, that the movie has a fair amount of surprises.  With six narratives, you’ve got six little horror films with their own logic, creeps, mysteries, and shocks.  And while no one of them is so good that it would work as its own feature (any better than a lot of average feature-length horror films), the chaotic unknowns play out cleverly.  Or cleverly enough, anyway.

The only one of the directors with whom I had any familiarity with is Ti West.  But that is perhaps the best thing about the film and the reason I’ll just leave it at this.  Not knowing what might happen, what to expect, earns an edge for these shorts and while I’m about as tired of “faux found footage” as anyone, I’ll say that this is a decent project and worth seeing if this sounds like your kind of thing.

Chernobyl Diaries (2012)

Chernobyl Diaries (2012) movie poster

directory Bradley Parker
viewed: 12/19/2012

Co-written, co-produced, and adapted from a story by Oren Peli (he of Paranormal Activity (2007) notoriety), Chernobyl Diaries is a horror film that trades primarily on its eerie setting.  A group of American travelers visiting Kiev, Ukraine, decide to venture on a bit of “extreme tourism”, hooking up with a former military guide named Yuri, to Prypiat, the abandoned city where the workers at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant had lived up until the Chernobyl Disaster in 1986.  The city was evacuated in a sudden rush, leaving a ghost town, far too radioactive for many years for humans to access.  Only now, supposedly, has the radioactivity receded enough for short, surreptitious visits to explore its ghostly atmosphere.

While the film wasn’t really shot in Prypiat (and was considered by some to be exploitative of the disaster), there is a real point of fascination with the area.  I’d read an article from Wired Magazine about the area and the way that nature had “taken back” the prohibited space, really painting an intriguing image of the aftermath of what is considered the most devastating nuclear disaster to date.

The film plays well with this mystery, or set of mysteries.  With an Australian guy and his Norwegian gal in tow, we’ve got the group of six people who, according to horror standards, will be knocked off one by one.  Only at first, what the danger is looms in question?  Mutant fish? Killer dogs? Radioactive brown bears?  Or…something weirder?

I watched (not sure why since I rarely watch tv dramas) Peli’s “faux found footage” television series The River, which probably provided me with a good sense of the tricks that Peli’s work has up its sleeves. Luckily, this film isn’t “faux found footage” for the most part, but the dramatic builds, the surprises, the twists, the tweaking of the mystery, all moderately able, were pretty recognizable as they unfolded.

The film is a nice concise 86 minutes, but certain bits of development feel more rushed than others.  And one other shortcoming is that you can kind of tell by looks who the final survivors will be pretty early on.  And sadly, they aren’t necessarily the most interesting characters.

If it wasn’t for having read the Wired Magazine article, I don’t know if this film would have intrigued me the way it did.  It was moderately entertaining.

Though perhaps the reality is more interesting than the horror fantasy staged within it.

Lawless (2012)

Lawless (2012) movie poster

director John Hillcoat
viewed: 12/16/2012

Based on the non-fiction book The Wettest County in the World by Matt Bondurant, Lawless is a prohibition era crime film in which the outlaws are the heroes.  Adapted by Nick Cave, who played a similar role in John Hillcoat’s The Proposition (2005), it’s a proven team of collaborators dealing with the gritty, bloody type of story that they’ve been successful with before.  Cave also helped score the film, which is never a bad thing either.

On the semi-bad side, the film stars Shia LaBeouf, as the youngest of the Bondurant brothers, the most squeamish and least brawly.  He’s kind of the center of the story.  Luckily, it also stars Tom Hardy , Gary Oldman, Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Jason Clarke, and Guy Pearce.  Most significantly Mr. Hardy, who is one of the better actors coming into his own of late.

The film’s got some brutal moments, most intensely with Hardy’s Forrest Bondurant wields brass knuckles into a couple of fellows’ throats.  The film isn’t lacking on impact in that sense, nor is it lacking of an interesting, engaging story.

It’s hard to say exactly what it’s lacking, but it’s lacking something from managing to be more than it is.  It has a lot of good things going for it, but as a whole, the film doesn’t pack the punch that Hardy’s steel-coated fist does.

LaBeouf isn’t terrible by any means.  In fact, maybe he’s more likable here than in other films.  Still, not one of my favorite actors.

The soundtrack is very good, featuring that “old timey” music, though interestingly, Cave has taken a lot of more contemporary songs and re-situated them in the style of the folk music of the time of the film’s setting.  My recommendation is to check out the soundtrack and my inclination is to read the book, The Wettest County in the World, which I think would have been a better, more colorful title for the film itself.