This Must Be the Place (2011)

This Must Be the Place (2011) movie poster

director Paolo Sorrentino
viewed: 05/27/2013

In This Must Be the Place, Sean Penn plays an agoraphobic, soft-spoken ex-1980’s pop star goth living in Ireland who heads to America for the first time in decades to seek out his estranged, recently departed father’s Auschwitz persecutor that he didn’t know existed.  Immense amount of bizarreness surrounds every part of the film, none of it straight-forward or clear in its direction, constantly wobbling on the edge of mystery, much as Penn’s face is constantly wobbling on miserable tears.

It’s a European production that turns into a U.S. road movie, from Italian director/co-writer, Paolo Sorrentino.  The cinematography is slick and poignant and vivid.  And the film’s meandering wanderlust isn’t as much the problem as the eventual soft landings that the story takes us through.  There is a glibness despite the amount of complex, convoluted detail.  Or even within some aspects of the details.

It sounds so weird on paper.  And Penn, of course, delivers a pretty solidly off-beat performance.  But it’s an art film, replete with aspects of comedy, yet for every quality there is a shortcoming.  And it’s ultimately not very satisfying.

It should have been weirder.

The Man from Planet X (1951)

The Man from Planet X (1951) movie poster

director Edgar G. Ulmer
viewed: 05/26/2013

From Edgar G. Ulmer, director of The Black Cat (1932), Detour (1945), and Strange Illusion (1945), a 1950’s sci-fi flick with aliens!

In 1951 two real classics of the genre were released, films that would come to embody the Fifties and American xenophobia, The Day the Earth Stood Still and The Thing from Another World.  While science fiction existed before the 1950’s, it came be one of the definitive periods for the genre, Cold War metaphors and all.  The Man from Planet X may not be one of the jewels of the genre nor period, it’s a cool low-budget thriller with some awesome things about it.

Ulmer spent most of his career as a Poverty Row film-maker, but he made a couple of excellent films and certainly some other very interesting ones.  The Man from Planet X is darkly noirish, even to the extent of verging on expressionistic horror at times.  Set mostly in a remote and murky part of Scotland, a scientist and his daughter host a couple of former students as they study a phenomenon from space, a planet that has redirected its route directly toward Earth.  And the reason for being in this weird part of Scotland?  It happens to be the part of Earth that will come the closest to the planet when it “passes by”.

Clearly the science here isn’t the heartiest.

But wait! There is a spacecraft that has landed, with the man from this Planet X.  He’s a strange-looking spaceman who “speaks” through sounds, carries a gun, and needs some form of his own oxygen to breathe.  Sadly, one of the former students is Dr. Mears (the ageless William Schallert), seeks to profit from the technology of the spaceman.  This very short-sighted plan goes awry and the spaceman enslaves several people to prepare for the landing of his fellow creatures when the planet comes close.

It actually quite muddles the potential good or evil of the aliens.  They are trying to escape their dying world, but do they come in peace?  We never find out.  We blow them up.

One of Ulmer’s key qualities is his work in miniature landscapes and background matte paintings.  They are most remarkable here as well.  I don’t know but it probably says a lot about me that even as a kid, I loved the glorious, lurid fakery of matte paintings as background design.  Maybe I just loved the fantasy of it and the styles, didn’t need it to “look real”.

I think The Man from Planet X  has tipped me over the top with Ulmer.  I’ve liked his films and have cited Detour as a personal favorite, but now, the auteur of Poverty Row is now in my list of favorite directors.

Epic (2013)

Epic (2013) movie poster

director Chris Wedge
viewed: 05/25/2013 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Not epic in the least, this very richly designed digitally animated feature has lots of polish but its verve virtually ends there.  Adapted from a 1996 children’s book by William Joyce, the film feels like a vision that has been envisioned before, a nature story with quasi-ecological undertones, about a world in nature that exists below human eyesight.  In it’s epic strides, it is like a green, kids version of Avatar (2009), with celebrity voices and big screen action.

That, of course, didn’t inhibit Clara and her friend Victoria utterly enjoying the film.  In fact, they seemed the prime, primed audience for it in many ways.

For me, as can be the case in animated films, the only characters that jelled were the gelatinous slug voiced by Aziz Ansari and to a lesser extent the snail voiced by Chris O’Dowd.  Ansari’s slug was by far the most amusing thing in the entire film for me.

It’s a richly imagined world, from an aesthetic perspective.  A world of miniature life among the plants and critters of the woods.  A dedicated crackpot scientist has spent his life trying to document this world, but it’s only when his visiting daughter becomes shrunken down into this microcosm, does the whole thing prove itself real.  For all the good guys in the forest, there is an army of baddies called the Boggans who spread disease and decay (kind of like the Cavity Creeps of old Crest commercials), who represent an ideology of gloom.  They aren’t inherently related to pollution.  In fact, they may just be the natural order of death. Their leader is voiced by Christoph Waltz.

The voice acting varies from quite fun, such as Ansari to the really quite awful in Beyoncé Knowles (queen of the forest).

For my money, as good as the film looked, like a 3-D digital Fantasia (1940) with flower people of many stripes, it’s a rather lackluster affair in its whole being.  While the girls dug it, I had to color it disappointing.

Forbidden Planet (1956)

Forbidden Planet (1956) movie poster

director Fred M. Wilcox
viewed: 05/24/2013

I guess that it’s time for me to add Forbidden Planet to my all-time favorite movies list.  It has, after all, actually been a favorite of mine back to childhood.  It had just been about 20 years or so since I had last seen the darn thing.  Considered one of the best films of 1950’s science fiction, I’m hardly alone in recognizing it as such.

An interplanetary riff on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the film is also a pop psychology take on Freudian/Jungian concepts, most namely the Id.  It’s got all that going for it plus an amazing soundtrack of entirely electronic creation, amazing sets and art direction, wonderfully animated special effects, Robby the Robot, Walter Pidgeon and Leslie Nielson!  It’s a thing of pure beauty, in my opinion, perhaps due to or perhaps having instilled in me a love for the aesthetics of 1950’s visions of the future, color palettes and all.

As a kid, I loved Robby the Robot and the Id monster.  The Id monster is mysteriously invisible through most of the film, only appearing as an electrified animated outline of some bizarre fantastic two-legged creature for a few moments onscreen.  That the creature is the embodiment of the darker reaches of Dr. Morbius’ (Walter Pidgeon’s) mind,  well, I’d gathered that, though I don’t know that I understood all the repressed sexuality burgeoning beneath the surface of the whole.

When I last saw the film, as a young adult, as part of a film class, the Freudian subtext seemed as loud as anything and outright hilarious.  When the doctor’s teenage vixen of a daughter (Anne Francis) appears in her fetchingly futuristic mini-skirt outfits, she arouses the desires of Leslie Nielson’s spaceship crew, and Nielson himself, of course.  But she also is highly aroused by the Earthmen that she has never before set eyes upon, as well.  And when all of the creations from the mind of Morbius (who has used alien technology to project and create things in this world) recognize all this lust and sexuality, innocence is lost and men must die.

The film, this time, struck me in yet another way.  The Earth crew of this spaceship, visiting this outlying planet for the first time in 20 years, really are quite like the eventual Gene Roddenberry Star Trek series, which apparently was an acknowledged influence.

It’s a remarkable film, and I can attest that it truly is still a personal favorite.  I’ve come to appreciate the 1950’s science fiction film as something specific and enjoyable for me as a genre and period, but it still stands out, in the so many ways I enumerated above.  It’s an aesthetic fantasia.  And remarkably intelligent, discursive, and reflective of the mores of the time.

I watched it with Clara, who enjoyed it (she enjoys most things), though doubtlessly less that I, most doubtlessly less than I at her age.

The Puffy Chair (2005)

The Puffy Chair (2005) movie poster

directors Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass
viewed: 05/22/2013

Somehow, quite recently, I’ve reached a minor break in my Netflix movie queue, actually getting through movies that I’ve prioritized at the top and into the long logjam of 450+ movies that were just there in a less ordered order.  Thus, The Puffy Chair.

A few years back, I’d been reading about the Mumblecore genre.  I watched the Duplass Brothers’ Baghead (2008).  I was intrigued, mainly perhaps by actress Greta Gerwig, who has started to be the first break-out from the genre into the mainstream.  Though the Duplasses also had a more mainstream entry with 2010’s Cyrus, which I also managed to see.  But I’d also queued up their first feature, The Puffy Chair, but really hadn’t gotten all to excited or interested to get around to watching it, or many other films of the low-budget, DIY genre.

It’s a light comedy about a guy (Mark Duplass) and a girl (Katie Aselton) who go on a road trip to pick up the titular puffy chair that Duplass has purchased on craigslist for his father’s birthday.  Their tenuous romantic relationship is further burdened by the guy’s brother, a sweet-voiced hippy guy, who tags along.

It has some funny bits.  The actors, who contribute to the script through improvisation, all deport themselves pretty well.  It doesn’t rise to anything remarkable.  It’s goofy, charming, awkward, and it’s nothing to really discredit.

I don’t know what else to say.

Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011)

Page One: Inside the New York Times (2011) movie poster

director Andrew Rossi
viewed: 05/19/2013

Despite the fact that it had been recommended to me strongly by a friend and co-worker, Page One: Inside the New York Times lingered in my rental queue longer perhaps than it should have.  In fact, I managed to see a different film also, to an extent, about the TimesBill Cunningham New York (2011), which, while charming and interesting, was not nearly as fascinating and cleaved so closely with my interests as Page One.

Filmed in 2010, Page One already is a thing of its time.  Like the news itself, 2010 and many of the issues encountered by the New York Times newsroom in the duration of the documentary, are all items of a recently passed history.  It’s the onset of Wikileaks, which is a fascinating parallel for the Times in comparison with the Pentagon Papers, which they had helped publish four decades before.  It’s the storied and significant “paper of record” suffering the slings and arrows of the outrageous Internet Age and the corporatization of news media in the United States.  Those things are all still very potent issues today, three years later, but things have changed, ever so slightly, in the ever-evolving world that is our present.

This is not at all to say that the documentary is dated in the least.  In fact, it is a tremendous, if largely laudatory, portrait of one of America’s great institutions and some of the people and personalities that make it what it is.  More than anyone, media editor, David Carr, who I wasn’t personally familiar with until I stumbled on a panel he was on at SxSW in 2012 regarding media aggregators vs. traditional media companies.

I’ve worked in the web side of print publishing for most of the last 15 years, and while that wouldn’t presuppose a need to find the subject of journalism or technology’s role in the journalism/media world, I have found it inherently fascinating.  I had taken a class about 19th Century crime writing, as well, which led me to learn about the rise of literacy and the modern newspaper.  While I had taken journalism in high school and junior college, I learned nothing at all, but years later, working in a textbook store, I read a journalism textbook about ethics and in later years pined for journalism classes for both ethics and editing.  How this all somehow combined into a passionate belief in the need for ethical journalism, quality journalism, I’m not entirely certain.  I’m no journalist.  I am a reader.

By my thinking, the Times is an institution.  An institution of great value to the journalism and public discourse of the United States and by proxy probably a great deal of the world.  It’s not infallible (as noted in the film regarding the scandals of Jayson Blair and Judith Miller).  It should not by any means be the only source of news and information either.  This film, which follows the Times buffeted by the times of its day, seeking relevance, quality, viability, and information is a amazingly telling portrait however complete or incomplete it is.

I found myself wishing that this was a regular television show, though it’s probably much better that it isn’t.  Only that the times do keep changing and the issues evolving.

Journalism, to my mind, is an attempt at understanding the truth of the events around us.  And editorial oversight lends credence to which of those stories merit the most importance.  It’s something that is inherently subjective and imperfect but is also at the core of what a journalist/editor/newspaper is made to do.  And with the internet, corporate news organizations scaling back their foreign press, highly slanted television cable news, the idea of where we get our information is, to my mind, more and more important.  Today’s issues unfold more and more rapidly, and the newspaper, such as the Times, is not just the paper that is printed everyday but the corps of reporters, editorial staff, the whole entire make-up of their business and their many outlets.

Bottom line: after watching this film, I am going to pay my fair share for the New York Times online.  I support quality journalism, I support freedom of the press.

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) movie poster

director J.J. Abrams
viewed: 05/18/2013 at AMC Metreon 16, SF,  CA

In 2009 (really four years ago?), J.J. Abrams delivered a re-boot to the Star Trek franchise as reinvigorating and cleverly promising as any could really have hoped for.  In re-casting a younger version of the original television show’s Enterprise crew, the new versions of Kirk, Spock, Bones, Uhura, Scotty, Sulu and gang manage just the right amount of recognition, while casting a group of actors that have their own elan, verve, and presence.  It’s hard enough to cast a franchise set of actors for anything, much less ones who are bearing the weight of “being” a prior cast of pop media icons.  But Abrams and co. did it and also put together one of the better big summer movies of that year.

So it was with some reasonable amount of anticipation that accompanied the release of Abrams first sequel to the film, one which was rumored to feature Star Trek‘s villain of villains, Khan, no doubt also re-imagined for the times.  For some reason, this was meant to be some state secret, perhaps to hold at bay the many wagging tongues of internet bloggers who would dissect the casting and creation before the film had actually been seen by anyone.  In doing a modicum or research, I noted that The New York Times‘ writer A.O. Scott vowed to Paramount that he wouldn’t offer up “spoilers” around such a key component of the film’s plot and really, primary talking point.

Well, whatever.  It’s often too hard to talk seriously about a film while dancing around such obvious points.  No one will be too surprised to learn that Benedict Cumberbatch (try saying that five times fast) is the film’s key villain and is human superman Khan Noonien Singh, or simply Khan as friends and fans know him.  Khan was introduced in the original television series in an episode called “Space Seed”, which according to this new Star Trek‘s timeline wouldn’t have even happened yet (you’ll have to refer to the 2009 Star Trek for the whys and wherefores regarding this alternate universe/time travel possibility because it’s been four years and I only vaguely recall the details.) And of course Khan was made most indelibly known as getting his name into the title of the first series of film in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, the 1982 high point of the Star Trek franchise and major cultural foil for Star Trek Into Darkness.  And of course, in those cases, Khan was played by the inimitable Ricardo Montalbán, a Mexican actor playing a supposedly Indian superhuman.

In 2009, the kids I think were a bit young for Star Trek, and while we’ve watched Star Wars (1977) and its sequels, I have not introduced them at all to the Star Trek universe.  So, imagine, if you can, what it’s like going into a movie like Star Trek Into Darkness, a re-booted franchise, playing off a pop cultural touchpoints from the 1960’s and 1980’s that have infused themselves evermore into our continuum…unless you just didn’t know about all that.  Let’s just say that there are a lot of jokes and Vulcan mindmelds and Vulcan nerve pinches that aren’t nearly so obvious as you might think.  Even explaining what a Vulcan is and why he’s got pointy ears and doesn’t know what “happy” is…it’s a lot of explaining.

The real question that will get asked, has been asked by people that I told that I went to see this new Star Trek film is simply: is it any good?  Frankly, I found it a bit less good than its predecessor, though maybe not by a lot.  It’s an entertaining summer action film, with tidbits of cleverness and mystery, and a good cast and a good villain (which I would argue is often the real need in these “comic book”-ish movies.   I mean to say that every superhero needs a good bad guy to fight, and perhaps part of my case in point for Star Trek would be Khan.  He is the most interesting and be him Montalbán or Cumberbatch, he’s quite well embodied.

This film is no doubt already getting pulled apart, questioned, ranted about throughout the internets and beyond, but some with good reason.  I have no prediction where this all will fall in the long run, but I will say that the very odd inversion of the ending of The Wrath or Khan, what with this time Kirk is on the other side of the window, laying down his life to nuclear radiation, restarting the warp drive to save the Enterprise, and it’s Spock who yells the manic “Khhaaaaaaannn!!!” as opposed to William Shatner.  It’s such a bizarre spin on the other film and so massively self-aware that it’s the most meta of meta moments in this post-modern summer film.  You see, Leonard Nimoy does show up onscreen to tutor Zachary Quinto (the new Spock) regarding Khan, and though he doesn’t want to effect the path of the present (he came from the future), the camera cuts away as he advises him.  Maybe he tipped him off on the ending of the 1982 film, which would have happened some much longer time in the future of the current day Enterprise.  In reality it doesn’t make sense.

It’s a pretty heavy-handed in joke.

Felix thought the film was okay.  Clara enjoyed it, though was confused by a lot of things.  I liked it.  I thought it was pretty good myself.  It will surely be interesting to see who takes the helm of the next Star Trek film and where they end up taking it.  Abrams has left them in good standing, paths cleared for more adventures with a good cast and a pretty open universe to explore.

All while he jumps universes over to Star Wars.  And given what he’s done, the anticipation for that will be most fervent.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988)

Killer Klowns from Outer Space (1988) movie poster

director Stephen Chiodo
viewed: 05/17/2013

Coulrophobia, as it is called, is the fear of clowns.  Not something that I suffer from personally, mind you, but does seem to be an increasingly common fear of people, or at least one that people like to own up to.  It does seem to be a more modern phenomenon, stemming from things like Stephen King’s It and that scene in Poltergeist (1982), which was pretty scary, I’ll admit.

Killer Klowns from Outer Space no doubt taps into these qualities, featuring a race of human-eating aliens who look like big, ugly circus clowns.  It is also very self-aware of the absurdity of the concept.  The clowns wrap their prey in cotton candy-like cocoons, shot guns of flying popcorn, and fly in a space ship shaped like a big top circus tent.  What this does for clown fear, I can only guess.

What’s interesting and quite fun is the way that director Stephen Chiodo (and his collaborating brothers) get the film to ride this odd line between earnest scares and comic absurdity.  The actors, the human cast, plays the film straight, as if this truly was a horrible, frightening reality, though they are a most B-movie cast, so some level of tongue in cheek seems entirely embedded throughout.  And since I watched this with the kids (at Clara’s choosing), I got to see first-hand that some of the scares work despite the fact that I found it entirely comedic.

Even the kids, however, picked up on the homage to The Blob (1958).  The film is yet another oddball example of the kind of wackiness of film-making in the 1980’s, especially featuring the Chiodo Brothers’ physical analog special effects, these lovingly-rendered goofy, gruesome clowns.  Some of the design work reminded me of similar period Tim Burton, especially the scene that I thought the most amusing, when one of the clowns entertains people with shadow puppets, which of course eventually kill them.

As the film came to an end, Felix noted that he didn’t think it was a very good movie.  Yes, an obvious thing, especially if you aren’t clued into enjoying B-movies or movies that are a combination of badness and goodness, ironic or not in their charms.  It’s made me realize that we may need to watch Plan 9 from Outer Space (1959) at some point soon, which may actually deliver the concept of “so bad, it’s good” and the sometimes more subtle flavors of such cinematic joys.

Black Christmas (1974)

Black Christmas (1974) movie poster

director Bob Clark
viewed: 05/11/2013

Bob Clark directed the modern Christmas classic A Christmas Story in 1983, a film that has gone on to play 24 hours back-to-back on cable television and to have cracked the canon of best loved films of the Yuletide holidays.  Clark made a lot of films in his career, including such titles as Porky’s (1982) and Baby Geniuses (1999), but little do probably most people know but that Clark made another Christmas classic of another kind nearly a decade before.

Clark’s Black Christmas is one of the original “slasher” films, a genre of masked or unkillable menaces murdering young adults in brutal but creative ways.  Clark’s film is frequently cited as the first of the genre, though the film has many antecedents including Psycho (1960) and Peeping Tom (1960).  It was after happening upon watching My Bloody Valentine (1981) that my interest was piqued for the genre and I decided to queue up some of the films of the period in somewhat chronological order.

What’s particularly interesting about Black Christmas is that while it’s a genre film, it also sort of isn’t adherent to genre because so many of what would become standard expressions, sequences, and elements had yet to be codified.  In a lot of ways, it’s very inventive as far as the concept of a sorority house full of nubile soon to be corpses could be.  The killer is never actually unmasked, nor seen even directly (is he even wearing a mask?)  At the end of the film he remains undetected and at large, and while this would be a common aspect of the genre, set up to beget sequels, here it is just an eerie comment on the failure of society to discover him.

We see through the killers eyes, hearing his breathing, accompanied by some musical motif (albeit a dissonant one), ideas that would be picked up and reused ad nauseum in the genre.  The nudity (doesn’t exist) and the gore (somewhat minimal) belie the film’s entrenchment in the genre it would ignite.  The film, if anything, plays on the edge of the mystery of who is killing the women, harassing them in dirty phone calls, and whether it is someone they know or not.  It’s a mystery, sort of.  A who’s doing it.

There are a number of familiar faces here including Olivia Hussey, Keir Dullea, Margot Kidder, and John Saxon to name a few.  There is an amusing amount of boozing going on.  Both Kidder’s character and the house mother are pronounced sots.  And like many films, it’s a bit of a time capsule back to the mid 1970’s.

Because the killer is never named, no backstory, except his maniacal rantings about “It’s me, Billy” and some probably tragic home life, we never really “know” the why of this happening.  In that sense, it’s much more grounded in reality.  Part of the eventual cult of personality around the slasher killer anti-heroes is the often elaborate and eventually fantastical qualities of their origins, which make for more in depth grist for fans in sequel after sequel, but move these deathless beings further and further from the horrors of actual spree or serial killers who essentially they depict.

The slasher film eventually disinterested me over time, though I came of age during its heyday and had a reasonable relationship with it throughout my younger years.  But as “horror” it’s come to be less of a “thing” for me, so I haven’t wound up watching many in the last decade or so.

This is something that I will change shortly.  I’ve got a number of films queued up.  We’ll see where it takes me.

 

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990) movie poster

director Joe Dante
viewed: 05/10/2013

Clara and I did a Gremlins (1984) double feature, starting with the original and right after with the much later Gremlins 2: The New Batch which I am pretty sure that I never saw before.

I did have a friend who considered Gremlins 2 one of his favorite all-time movies.  He had a goofy, perverse sense of humor that, now that I have seen it, seems quite well attuned to director Joe Dante’s manic, chaotic meta sequel.  Where the original Gremlins felt a bit at odds with itself over its personality and identity, Gremlins 2 seems much the more pure Dante product, raging around pop culture like an incessant demon, beyond self-referential, just further and further into comic permutations.

Clara told me afterwards that she agreed with my friend and thought that the second film was funnier and slightly better because of it.

Me, I think it’s a hot mess of sorts, but one that seems to have strove for such a state of affairs.  It certainly takes that tack from the very outset, featuring a Warner Bros. logo with Bugs Bunny atop that breaks the narrative of movie language much like Chuck Jones’ great Duck Amuck (1953).  And this is just the opening sequence with characters who aren’t even in the movie the rest of the way.  Dante breaks the “fourth wall” again, if you will, when the gremlins take over the movie projection and the film dissolves onscreen.  They then start making shadow puppets and are finally yelled down by Hulk Hogan himself getting the movie back on track.

Zach Galligan and Phoebe Cates are back on board, in New York now, in the employ of a Donald Trump type in a “smart” building.  Gizmo gets picked up by a genetic engineer for the company, but of course all the rules get broken again and the gremlins come out and multiply, evolve, do a little of this, a little of that, a little of anything they can think of.  It seems that the puppeteers and creative crew had a blast going off on every little thing they could.

It’s even more of a mess of a movie, but it’s chock full of film and cultural references, many right back to Gremlins itself.  It’s a chaotic ride and a sort of ridiculous one too.  It is kind of funny and pretty amusing.  It’s even got a rather comic performance from Christopher Lee.

I’d say that the end result is about as good as the original film.  It’s a more pure expression of the comic Id of Joe Dante, channeling his Tex Avery and Looney Tunes aesthetics ripping and riffing hardcore on the pop culture of the time.