The Collector (2009)

The Collector (2009) movie poster

director Marcus Dunstan
viewed: 01/27/2013

I chose to watch The Collector because I mistook it for The Collection (2012) (if you look, the posters are very similar, not just the titles).  I chose it (mistakenly) because local film critic Mick LaSalle of The San Francisco Chronicle derided The Collection as one of the most puerile non-cinema wastes of time ever.  See, I highly dislike LaSalle (though I earnestly read the paper) and when he gets on particular high horses and lambastes things, it makes me want to see them.

Unfortunately, I only realized my error after having watched The Collector, which it turns out, is The Collection‘s predecessor.  The Collection is a sequel, which I don’t think that LaSalle made note of.

Apparently it was also meant to be a prequel at one time to the Saw (2004) franchise but for reasons unknown was given its own freedom to be.

It’s the story of a down-on-his-luck handyman who decides to rob the house of the family he’s been working on, only to stumble upon a sadistic scheme being played out.  A masked killer is capturing and torturing the family, has booby-trapped the house in Rube Goldbergian-lite, and likes to add torture to the mix.  The would-be thief becomes the would-be hero, trying to rescue the family (and failing with the exception of the youngest daughter).

It’s torture porn, to an extent.  There are moments of torture or violence that are lingered upon for what seems like more than gross-out effect.  With its masked menace, who has no small element of bondage gear about him (and reminds me vaguely of the much more entertaining Wes Craven flick, The People under the Stairs (1990).  It’s also this bizarre concept of the overly elaborate monster who has constructed some lugubrious set of traps that no real killer ever would.  Or would have had the time to!

Anyways, it is what it is and it’s not terrible.  It’s moderately well-made for what it is.

Did I like it?  I haven’t really gone in for the torture porn genre.  I only saw the first Saw and the first Hostel (2005), though I guess that I did watch The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2010) and The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence) (2011).  Since I failed in my attempt to watch The Collection, the real aim of the rental, I guess that I will still have to queue up that one for whatever deranged reasoning I had in the first place.

Allegro non Troppo (1976)

Allegro non Troppo (1976) movie poster

director Bruno Bozzetto
viewed: 01/26/2013

I believe that it was in my first film class in junior college that I was introduced to Allegro Non Troppo, Bruno Bozzetto’s oddball parody of Walt Disney’s Fantasia (1940).  I often think back to that class because we on the whole were given a pretty excellent smattering of world cinema.  I don’t know where I would have run into Allegro Non Troppo otherwise.

The film is structured around live action sequences, with a pompous narrator introducing each sequence.  Unlike Disney’s film which was made in deep seriousness, Allegro Non Troppo features a scrawny, unappreciated artist, an overbearing, brutish conductor, and an orchestra made up of little old ladies who had been kept in a cage before going to perform.  This light comedy is moderately deft, but by no means is the main import of the show.  Bozzetto’s emcee gets a phone call from Hollywood and cites Disney openly.  But this parody isn’t made to make Disney’s film look bad, rather just cites it as its point of reference.

The film’s best sequence is the march of evolution set to Ravel’s Bolero.  This mimics Fantasia‘s Rite of Spring sequence, which shows the forming of the earth and eventual evolution to the dinosaurs.  Bozzetto’s version is far more impish.  It all starts out of the sludge of a Coke bottle, a bubbling, constantly seething mass with an eye that eventually morphs into a growing number of increasingly sophisticated organisms.  The creatures are all more bizarre than the next, striving fitfully and often fruitlessly to survive.  The sequence comes to a close when the nasty-looking monkey discovers fire and builds machines and cities and religion.

The film’s second best piece is a short set to Dvořák’s Slavonic Dance No. 7, Op. 46 in which one man from a crowd sets out to build a shack to himself, only to have the whole of the community pick up and imitate him.  Each improvement he does, they imitate too, until he’s grousing in a skyscraper city.  So, he devises a silly dance for them to imitate, which they do.  And as he gets them going, he tries to lead them over a cliff, like proverbial lemmings.  Only they aren’t as stupid as he thinks and when he looks to see what’s happened, he gets mooned en masse.

The kids enjoyed the film, though, as typical, Clara a bit more than Felix.  I had been telling them about it and saying that it was a parody of Fantasia, but it wasn’t until the film opened on “Prelude to a Faun” that Clara recognized what Fantasia was.  She said, “That’s one of my favorites!”  And she liked this one as well.

I’ve always noted that it suffered a bit from being “of its time”, the mid-1970’s, and it’s a much less big budget affair as opposed to Fantasia.  It’s very 1970’s.

But it’s also quite charming and amusing.  It suffers a bit from not having a real finalé, a point of which it mocks itself.  So a couple of the sequences kind of fade from memory more than stand out.

The Bolero sequence is well worth the price of admission, if you will.  We also watched the DVD extras from Bozzetto’s other animations, some of which are a little less “kid-friendly” from a more prudish or Puritanical perspective, but are really not bad.  Some are quite good.

Hell Drivers (1957)

Hell Drivers (1957) movie poster

director Cy Endfield
viewed: 01/26/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

The second feature I caught at the Castro Theatre’s Noir City Festival was Hell Drivers, an English production, like Night of the Demon (1957), also featuring the festival’s guest of honor Peggy Cummins.  Unlike Night of the DemonHell Drivers might fit a little better into the Noir category, though it also might be pushing the true definition a bit.

It’s a gritty drama that perhaps falls into a subgenre of movies about truck drivers and the tough world they inhabit, perhaps a bit like They Drive by Night (1940) which is actually considered a Noir film though it also depicts a kind of social realism.

Directed by Red Scare scapegoat ex-pat Cy Endfield, the film actually captures a Britain of genuine character.  It also features a very notable cast beyond stars Stanley Baker, Cummins, and Herbert Lom.  It includes Sean Connery, Patrick McGoohan, David McCallum, and Jill Ireland.

It’s the gritty story of an ex-con (Baker) who lands a rough job as a ballast driver.  The crew is a pack of tough guys, with Red (McGoohan) as the toughest of the lot, all driving hell for leather across the English roads, back and forth with trucks full or empty of gravel.  The boss encourages recklessness and speed and is also ruthlessly pitting them against each other while he skims from the top.

It’s an entertaining yarn.  And it’s interesting to watch to Cummins pictures back to back.  Neither of these films has anything on Gun Crazy (1950), her best role, but it does illuminate the pretty, vibrant actress.

Good stuff.

Night of the Demon (1957)

Night of the Demon (1957) movie poster

director Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 01/26/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

It’s a little hard for me to believe, but I think this showing of Night of the Demon was my first to San Francisco’s Noir City Festival, even though this is its 11th year.  Odder perhaps that the first film I see at this notable film noir festival is not exactly a noir film.  But rather, it’s the first of a double feature starring Peggy Cummins, who was this year’s guest of honor, most notable for her amazing performance in the remarkable Gun Crazy (1950), which opened the festival the night before..

It was fine enough for me, a fan of director Jacques Tourneur and the film itself, glad to see it on the big screen, glad to have impetus to finally go to the festival.

Luckily, this time around, they showed the original British Night of the Demon as opposed to the truncated American version Curse of the Demon.  It’s a little longer and features a particularly uncanny scene with a clan of probably devil worshipers in the English countryside.

For a film that Martin Scorsese has listed as one of the scariest movies of all time (a pretty damn fine list), it’s certainly one of the more bizarre horror films of the 1950’s.  As the film was introduced, the discussion highlighted the conflict between producer Hal E. Chester and director Tourneur on the showing of the demon.  Chester wanted to market a “monster movie”, which unsurprisingly required a monster.  Tourneur, no doubt hearkening to his work with Val Lewton, desired to build the dread and keep the mystery by never showing a creature at all, leaving it up to the imagination.  Though it’s hard to imagine the movie without the demon (he is very prominent, even on the poster), one could imagine a version that had no creature could have been paired very well with Lewton’s The Seventh Victim (1943), a devil worshiping horror film he made with Mark Robson a decade earlier in which atmosphere and dread permeate the film rather than anything “physical”.

I don’t know.  I think I’m in the minority that I actually like the monster.  I don’t necessarily know or think that it’s “better” with him than without.  Rather, I like him.  I was no doubt a child of that crowd to which Chester was marketing the film initially.  Devil worship in the 1940’s and 1950’s is much more far out than later in the century.  Considering it comes from a story written in 1911,  “Casting the Runes” by M.R. James, perhaps adds even more deep dark past to it.  Who knows?

Great stuff, nonetheless.

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (2011)

The Ballad of Genesis and Lady Jaye (2011) movie poster

director Marie Losier
viewed: 01/25/2013

It’s a love story.  Part of which is musician/performance artist/pioneer of industrial music, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge.  And his history and career.  And part of which is Lady Jaye Breyer P-Orridge, a performance artist, nurse, and ultimately Gen’s wife for over a decade.  And pandrogyny.  Their project to create a new entity, not through procreation, but through art, intimacy, and plastic surgery.

Mostly, it’s a love story.  Gen met Jaye in the early 1990’s and she became the love of his life.  He was 19 years her senior, not scandalous, but perhaps more pedestrian for a middle-aged man in a second wife.  Perhaps it’s the only pedestrian thing in it.

As a leader of COUM Transmissions art group, Throbbing Gristle and Psychic TV, Genesis P-Orridge is a significant and extreme figure in music’s avant-garde.  Radical, unorthodox, heavily influenced by William S. Burrough’s cut-up technique, applied to music, he’s had a long and influential impact on a variety of genres and styles and media.

But his project with Lady Jaye, an idea of crafting a new individual, becoming a singular person, led them through a series of plastic surgeries, including breast implants, to form an embodiment of their love for one another.  And clearly Gen had further to go, more to do, to merge with Lady Jaye in their pandrogynous being.  He’s in his early 60’s now, so his flamboyant outfits, botoxed lips, bleached blond hair, and mini-skirts strike a unique figure, even next to his slim, tall doppelganger.

As a love story, it’s sadly tragic.  Lady Jaye died quite suddenly at the age of 37 from complications regarding a long-running battle with stomach cancer.

For the film, it’s unfortunate, as well.  While there is plenty of Genesis, speaking both on-camera and off, at length telling their story, their ideas, his history, Lady Jaye has mostly flitting moments of time to discuss her life and this project, showing it to be truly mutual.  She’s much more elusive in the film and it’s hard not to wish to know her a little more.

The documentary itself is okay, not great, not entrancing or overly enlightening.  Not too radical, working with what it has.  Director Marie Losier sees this as a love story, not an analysis, not an exposé.  Which is fine.

Argo (2012)

Argo (2012) movie poster

director Ben Affleck
viewed: 01/23/2013 at Embarcadero Cinema, SF, CA

Hollywood and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences loves themselves their actors turned directors.  Robert Redford. Clint Eastwood.  Kevin Costner.  Mel Gibson, fercryinoutloud.  Now Ben Affleck.

Well, Ben was left off the Best Director list this year, so maybe they don’t quite love him enough.  They do love him enough that Argo is a front-runner for Best Picture.  And the Hollywood Foreign Press loved him enough to give him a Golden Globe for Best Director.

The fact is that he’s average perhaps as a director, really.  I’ve seen Gone Baby Gone (2007) and The Town (2010) and now Argo and as a director he’s capable but not noteworthy.  And Argo, also, is capable but not spectacular.

The story behind Argo, referred to according to Wikipedia as the “Canadian Caper”, is the sort of plot that pretty much writes itself and its ticket to success.  It’s about a rescue mission in Iran in 1980 to extract six government workers trapped in the Canadian ambassador’s house while a massive turnabout in Iranian politics exposed the anger at American intervention and ended up with 52 American hostages during the crisis.  The rescue mission revolved around the pretense of a sci-fi film being scouted in Tehran, and that with Canadian passports and sleights of espionage-coated hands, the workers would escape pretending to be working on a movie.  So it’s an spy thriller, based on real events, with a dash of Hollywood baked in.

That is an easy sell.  And it’s quite fascinating.  Of course, the movie is all about the CIA and American heroes, but you know…it’s a movie.

Affleck and I are close in age and I guess that his interest in the events is somewhat like my own.  I fully remember this time in the world and much of the events, though in a haze of childhood, not really following it blow by blow.  But tripping back to 1979, Affleck is obsessed with the details of the period.  His character has a child who would have been probably about Affleck’s age at the time.  His room is covered with Star Wars (1977) and Planet of the Apes (1968) gear.  All of the men have the most unfortunate haircuts and facial hair.  Even Affleck, who plays the hero CIA agent, has an unwieldy mop of hair and a beard.  The film is also peppered with television news tidbits and talking heads of the period.  Heck, the movie even uses a Warner Brothers logo of the time that looks like Atari or something.

There is also an odd wistfulness for Star Wars in this dream of a Star Wars knock-off, the fake film Argo which they build up in Hollywood like a real thing.  Affleck’s character retains one storyboard for his son, and there is almost a sense of “wouldn’t it have been more fun, if less meaningful, to have made a space opera?”  I mean, we rescued people…but it’s all classified and there’s no action figures.

Alan Arkin, as the fake movie’s producer, gets all of the good lines.  There are a number of “cheap shot” gags about Hollywood in the “making” of a fake movie.  It’s not really the film’s focal point, but it is the film’s largest sense of humor.

The rest of the film, and Affleck’s performance in general, are sincere, serious, and kind of businesslike.  “We’re dealing with real stuff here.  Let’s not be flashy.”  And Affleck’s performance, while not particularly special is understated enough not to draw too much unwonted attention.

It’s a fine film, a decent film.  Nothing to be ashamed of.  It’s just not nearly as good or interesting as you may have heard elsewhere.

Monkey Business (1952)

Monkey Business (1952) movie poster

director Howard Hawks
viewed: 01/18/2013

I have fond memories of this movie from childhood, watching it with my mom.  I’m wont to say that it was one of her favorite films, but I’m don’t remember that specifically and she’s no longer around to ask.  But it’s easy enough for me to think that. Cary Grant, Ginger Rogers, Marilyn Monroe.  Maybe it’s not Howard Hawks’ personal best but it’s still good fun.

Grant plays an absent-minded scientist, married to the lovely Rogers.  He’s working for a lab trying to evoke a sort of “youth formula”, a fountain of youth serum, which his elderly, eager boss, the hilarious Charles Coburn is keen to try out.

Testing on chimps has led nowhere.  That is, until a chimp gets into the act, mixes a serum and dumps it in the water cooler.  Then Grant takes a shot of his test serum (washing it down with the water cooler water) and suddenly he’s a vivified as a teen.  He runs off with Coburn’s sexy secretary, Monroe and plays hooky, buying a sports car, roller skating, and high-diving.  Getting into a lot of trouble.

When he comes down from his high, Rogers gets in on the act, testing the waters herself (still thinking it’s Grant’s formula and not the water doing the work).  She becomes playful and histrionic and more screwball silliness ensues.

And then, toward the end, drinking up a pot of coffee made with the water, Rogers and Grant revert to childhood, getting more and more silly and deeper into their shenanigans.

Clara wound up getting pretty into it.  Felix thought it was a bit “weird”.  I think it certainly has its moments.

Rogers is vibrant and funny and has a very amusing scene where she balances a glass on her forehead as she lies down on the floor and rises again without tipping it over.  Grant’s comedy is typically charming.  Besides Some Like It Hot (1959), I think that this was the only other film from which I was really familiar with Marilyn Monroe as a kid.  It’s a small role and the classic dumb blonde.  But she’s sweet and charming too.

Still, the best element of watching the film was recollecting seeing it with my mom.  It was very much of her era (she would have been nine when it came out).  And it was nice to watch it with my kids, rounding out the experience.

Heavy Traffic (1973)

Heavy Traffic (1973) movie poster

director Ralph Bakshi
viewed: 01/14/2013

I have said before that I never quite fully appreciated animator Ralph Bakshi’s work, and I’ve known that among those who do, that Heavy Traffic and Coonskin (1975) were considered to be his best and most radical works.  After watching Wizards (1977) recently, I thought I should take a stab at his most personal films.  Sadly, Coonskin isn’t available from Netflix.

Heavy Traffic is quite the radical film.  Using some live-action shots and some photographic elements used for scenery and background, Bakshi also employs a hyperbolic line of stereotypes and caricatures, tapping into some much older styles of animation and cartooning, while also inflecting the present of early 1970’s New York.  Having made his splash with Fritz the Cat the year before, Bakshi continues to mine the vein of oversexualized lampoon that helped earn the film its X rating in its day.  It’s all cultural Id, teeming, seething, consuming, reflecting the vibrant vibe and the oozy seediness of New York of those times.

The film’s soundtrack ranges from hippie-era tunes, late 1950’s jazz, classic rock’n’roll, Delta blues, and ping-ponging around to the cut-up rhythm of a pinball machine.

The story follows a cartoonist who bops around the neighborhood, naive but trying to play it slick with the local hoodlums, pimps, prostitutes, barmaids, drag queens and ethnic groups.  It’s not unlike a Lou Reed song on acid.

I understand that Coonskin is even more steeped in caricature and stereotypes, though Heavy Traffic bears them too.  From a historical standpoint, the animation and design reflects the caricatures and simplifications, much as early New York animation in the 1920’s and 1930’s did.  It’s tapping into a style of depiction that isn’t very comfortable to watch, but is contrasted with the naturalized rhythms of the voice acting, which sound very improvisational and muddy.  A sort of naturalism  contrasting to straight-up cartoons.

It’s loose and trippy and weird.  And while the animation is in its sort of limited style, the whole of the concept and execution weave together in a way that makes it all seem much more complete, perhaps than in some of his other films.  It has a vibe of the Beats, while yet feeling very much of its time and place.

It feels radical and out-there, perverse, surprising.  Certainly the most interesting of Bakshi’s films that I have seen.  I’ll have to get my hands on Coonskin before too long.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) movie poster

director Benh Zeitlin
viewed: 01/13/2013

Quvenzhané Wallis, who plays the 6 year old protagonist Hushpuppy in Beasts of the Southern Wild, is indeed wonderful.  Director Benh Zeitlin’s greatest achievement is in evoking the performance from the little girl.  She is the heart and soul of the film, set on a fictional island near the mouth of the delta of the Mississippi River outside New Orleans.

And it’s easy to see why some people could be so wowed by her to confuse the experience as a good movie.

The story follows Hushpuppy and her father and their ramshackle existence, in an outsider society in pretty extreme poverty.  When their world is torn up and submerged by a major storm, the people are trucked into a hospital, which is portrayed as a cold, mechanized, conforming removal of freedom.  The levee that both protected and failed New Orleans is also an emblem of society(?) that they wish to destroy.  And the coming of the giant hog creatures, the “Aurochs”, that is a metaphor for the coming apocalypse?  A back to nature event?

It’s a fantasy world, perhaps meant to represent Hushpuppy’s childish perspective and understanding of the world she inhabits on the edge of society, an encampment of poverty, at threat of nature and its whims.  It bears an aspect of magical realism, though with a heavy dose of forced effort.  I’ve heard it compared stylistically to Terrence Malick.  But it’s a style with which even Malick has questionable success these days.

I didn’t buy it.

But I do think that Dwight Henry, another non-professional actor, who plays Hushpuppy’s father, was also quite good.  And I don’t think it’s awful.  I do think it’s a qualified failure, with some unique highlights of its quite magical star.

Frankly, I kept thinking that someone needed to call Child Protective Services throughout.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006)

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) movie poster

director Mamoru Hosada
viewed: 01/12/2013 

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time is a sort of disappointing anime that I watched with the kids.  It had gotten pretty good reviews and I’m always trying to mix it up.

It’s quite the soap opera, though light-hearted, cute at times, and upbeat.

A teenage girl discovers that she can “leap” through time.  What does she do?  Go back to significant historical periods?  Fly into the far future to see what fate awaits the Earth?

No, she goes around her bad day, trying to tweak her behavior to make everything fun and peachy keen.  Sing karaoke for hours.  Eat your favorite meal for dinner.  Get the dessert that your sister stole from you.

It’s adapted loosely from a 1960’s Japanese science fiction novel, so maybe the small-mindedness of the character is more a representation of the period?  Or is it an accurate image of certain “girls”.

And while her final leaps move towards more significant goals, it’s a pretty pathetic image of what a teenage girl would do.  Sweet as she is.

Clara was fairly engaged with it. Felix thought that it didn’t measure up to other Japanese animation that we’ve watched.  I have to agree.  Not horrible but utterly forgettable.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time would have benefited from thinking and looking…before…she…you know…