The Honeymoon Killers (1969)

The Honeymoon Killers (1969) movie poster

director Leonard Kastle
viewed: 09/22/2013

Back in the early 1990’s I moved into San Francisco’s Inner Sunset neighborhood, which housed (and still houses) the great video shop Le Video.  In these pre-DVD, pre-internet times, Le Video was one of the greatest places a film fan in the Bay Area to live near.  I spent many hours being incredibly indecisive about the huge, intriguing “Cult” section (as well as many others), and found for the first time in my life, access to films that I had only heard of.  I discovered innumerable things in those years, things that without access to research tools (Wikipedia!) were only as informative as the films or the film boxes would be themselves.  Context wasn’t as easy to come by.

It was back then that I first saw Leonard Kastle’s The Honeymoon Killers, which I had heard of and had been intrigued by.  But I honestly didn’t know much about it beyond the film itself.

Shot in black-and-white, it’s a stark, naturalistic version of a pair of true crime criminals who bilked and killed many a lonelyhearts lady for their money back in the 1940’s.  Most compellingly, it stars Tony Lo Bianco as the Latin lothario Ray Fernandez and Shirely Stoler as the bitter Reubenesque nurse gone bad who becomes Rays evil, romantic foil.

What I didn’t know at the time was that this independent production was a one-off film by Kastle and producer Warren Steibel.  Somewhat like Herk Harvey’s amazing 1962 film Carnival of Souls, it’s out of step with both mainstream cinema of the time and most of the alternative B-movie and low-budget films of its day.  It’s style and being are singular and unique, emphasized in no small part by the fact that the team that made the film made no others.  Ever.

And yet, it’s a masterful film.

Still, this is in no small thanks to the actors.  Not just Lo Bianco and Stoler, but the many other women who play the victims of the pair, all offer performances true and keen yet somehow a bit different from standards.

It’s said that Martin Scorsese was originally hired to work on the film but was fired for working too slowly.  This fact is interesting because it does tie this film to others of the period, like Scorsese’s own early films and perhaps as well to films of John Cassavetes.  An independent and innovative style that would shake up American cinema in the 1970’s.  Still anomalistic here in this unusual film about real life killers Martha Beck and Raymond Fernandez.

I watched The Honeymoon Killers this time, on demand from cable, where it had played on TMC.  It’s available on Criterion Collection (still, I would argue, a mark of cinema cachet).  And with the internet (beyond Wikipedia), knowledge about the film and its production is relatively easily accessible.  It’s a world away from Le Video and my first interaction with the film.  Though Le Video still exists today.  And between that time I read the novelization of the film by Paul Buck, published by the British Blue Murder series.

It’s a pretty great film.  A love story about two pretty unlikable people.  A vain and sleazy man and a self-loathing misanthropist of a woman, who kill for a living, and love one another.  Their world has a deadly gravitational pull that unites them and dooms any others upon whom they set their sights.  The real Beck and Fernandez were executed on the same day in 1951 in Sing Sing’s electric chair.  A love story for all times, as perverse as any out there.

From Up on Poppy Hill (2011)

Up on Poppy Hill (2011) movie poster

director Gorō Miyazaki
viewed: 09/21/2013

The era of Hayao Miyazaki is winding down and we are left with the last couple of films that he is saying that he will work on.  His final film as director (and perhaps at all) is The Wind Rises (2013), which opened in Japan this past summer and will come to the states eventually.  In the mean time, we’ve have From Up on Poppy Hill, which Miyazaki co-wrote, adapted from a Japanese comic, and directed by Miyazaki’s son, Gorō, who had previously directed Tales from Earthsea (2006).

The last Miyazaki film to hit the States was The Secret World of Arrietty (2010), which was directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi but was co-written by Miyazaki and Keiko Niwa.  Niwa also shared a co-screenwriting credit here.

Arrietty felt like a pretty good Miyazaki film, featuring elements of fantasy within the world of the small “borrowers” (It was adapted from the children’s book  The Borrowers by Mary Norton).  From Up on Poppy Hill diverges from most of Miyazki’s work in that it cleaves much closer, if not entirely, to naturalism, with no elements of fantasy at all.  Maybe it shares more with the 1995 film Whisper of the Heart, which was written but not directed by Miyazaki (which I’ve only seen once on an untranslated DVD), which as I recall featured no magical beings or events either.

From Up on Poppy Hill is set in 1963 in Yokohama, centering around a girl, Umi, who works and lives in her grandmother’s boarding house (on “Poppy Hill”) and gets caught up in the attempts to save an old building that has been used by high school boys as their “clubhouse”, a huge, derelict home to all school clubs.  Her romantic interest in one of the boys, Shun, draws her in and sets in motion the other main narrative component, a secret of their somewhat connected childhoods.

The world of the film is mostly but not entirely naturalistic (as I understand).  Yokohama isn’t recreated as it was but in a more fantastic way.  But the era of 1960’s Japan, prepping for the coming Olympics, concerned with its perception as a “modern” democracy challenges some of the older qualities of Japanese culture and identity.  It’s less WWII than the Korean War that looms over the lives of the characters here.  Both Umi and Shun have lost their fathers in the War.  It is a wistful, romantacised portrait of an innocent, peaceful time, of first loves, and coming of age.  It’s very gentle and not particularly dramatic.

Lacking the magic of Miyazaki’s other films, literally, effects the magic of the film itself.  It’s beautifully rendered as most Studio Ghibli films are, has its strong female protagonist, its  interest in more traditional Japanese culture.  And it’s enjoyable.

I watched it with Clara (Felix had something else going on), and we both enjoyed it.  But Clara was quick to say that My Neighbor Totoro (1988) is still her favorite.

We will look forward to The Wind Rises.  At the time, we had thought that Ponyo (2008) was to be Miyazaki’s last film.  A fine film with which to punctuate his amazing career.  So, we are lucky to have more.

Jigoku (1960)

Jigoku (1960) movie poster

director Nobuo Nakagawa
viewed: 09/19/2013

You’ve probably heard that karma is a bitch.  Well, director Nobuo Nakagawa’s lurid, surreal vision of Buddhist “Hell” (which is the film’s title), is a relentless, bizarro litany of punishment for irrevocable sin.

Nakagawa’s film, a cult phenomenon in Japan since its release, has long been considered the touchstone of the Japanese horror film, which should no doubt intrigue those excited by the extreme outre-ness of Japanese horror as we have come to know it.

The film starts out with a college student and his Mephistopheles-esque schoolmate and rival, who accidentally run down a gangster on a dark street and fail to stop and assist.  Considering our protagonist is not at the wheel and wanted to go back to help, even tries to turn himself in to police, this crime seems a bit on the side of “not really his fault”.  But no matter.

As the story unfolds, like a reeling drunk, every character encountered is shown to have some core crime on his soul that would doom him to eternal damnation.  What weaves like a waking nightmare through its rather outlandish and convoluted narrative tips over for the film’s final half hour into a tour of the many realms of hell and the graphic punishments that await all sinners.

It’s where the film goes from story to Grand Guignol with amputations, lakes of pus, landscapes of disembodied limbs, and innumerable freaky weird moments and scenes.

It’s modernist and somehow out of left field, yet tied to a very explicit and didactic system of ultimate retribution and punishment from the powers of the universe.  Not really familiar with the shape and breadth of Buddhist hells, it’s hard for me to do more than project exactly how specific these depictions are to extant belief systems.  It’s pretty safe to say that Nakagawa’s Hell is still something not exactly dreamt of in your philosophy.

Wacky and far-out.

And I’ve already made a suggestion to a friend that it’d be a good double feature with Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (1977).

Five (1951)

Five (1951) movie poster

director Arch Oboler
viewed: 09/17/2013

A few weeks back (maybe more like months in reality) I noticed a film called The Twonky (1953) at the local Roxie Theater.  While I couldn’t make it to that, I did look it up to see if it was available on Netflix’s ever expanding dearth of content, only to find one other film by writer/director Arch Oboler available, his 1951 post-apocalyptic film, Five.

I really don’t think that I’d heard of Oboler before.  Not entirely sure, but pretty sure.  He started out in radio and apparently some of his best work was in that medium.  But he moved to film and television, and I must say, despite some comparisons to Orson Welles, he’s a fairly obscure kind of guy.  Though he was also an inspiration for The Twilight Zone‘s Rod Serling.

Anyhow, it sounded interesting.

Five is also noted for being potentially the first feature film made about post-nuclear apocalypse.  Which actually does interest me.  Growing up in the latter part of the Cold War era, apocalypse was generally associated with nuclear war, and even seemed to imbue post-apocalyptic films not explicitly about nuclear war’s aftermath.

What’s most interesting about Five, I think, is how it feels like an independent film, not part of the Hollywood machinery.  From the low-key natural landscapes to the character actor primaries largely unrecognizable today, it has a vibe, narrative and visual style unlike anything part of the more standard Hollywood or science fiction realm.

The film depicts a group of five survivors, surviving to varying degrees, and their real, practical approach to carrying on with human life.  The film was shot in and around Oboler’s own Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home, and lead William Phipps is getting to work trying to grow food to eat.  He meets a straggling, pregnant woman (the only woman of the five), and eventually the others as well and takes them in.  Casting an African-American, Charles Lampkin, as one of the survivors, Oboler addresses racism inherent to his film’s villain, but was probably quite a statement in 1951 as well.

In truth, the film’s unusual tone and style set it apart more than the narrative itself.  The drama is simple human drama with racism, greed, and sexuality as primary motives of villainy.  It’s quite low-key, interesting but never spectacular or sadly even fascinating.

Still, quite an interesting find.  Interesting in a number of various ways.

The Iceman (2012)

The Iceman (2012) movie poster

director Ariel Vromen
viewed: 09/15/2013

The Iceman was not a nice man. Richard Leonard “The Iceman” Kuklinski was a mob hitman who claimed to have killed between 100 and 250 people in his lifetime and career.  Really, he’s kind of like a serial killer who got hired to do what he did.  His work was largely efficient and yet highly varied in methodology.  He was eventually caught and tried and wound up dying in jail in 2006.

The film The Iceman is a biographical tale of the man and his life.  The majorly bizarre twist of his life was that he was also a happily married New Jersey suburbanite with wife and children who were totally oblivious to his brutal career.  To them and those that knew him, he was a business man of obscure generality.  And his devotion to his family suggested another side to the killer of so many.

Michael Shannon is cast as the cold, deeply disturbed man whose facade was largely one of calm and imperturbability.  Shannon specializes in crazed types who also bear a gentler, more normal self inside, something empathetic in their world of crazy.  Winona Ryder is his lovely wife, a role with some depth and range, though not a supremely complex one.  Ryder is beautiful in the film, looking a bit young to have teenage girls as daughters.  She’s pretty good in the film.  She was maybe the tipping point that got this into my queue.

Director Ariel Vromen gets a lot of reasonably big names in smaller roles in the film, sort of surprising turns by the likes of David Schwimmer and Chris Evans.  Vromen takes a pretty middle of the road approach to the narrative, going for a naturalism steeped in period clothing and dramatics of a traditional nature.

I kind of felt that there was something squandered here.  The likes of David Lynch, Paul Schraeder, Ted Demme or Andrew Dominik might have found something more profound, humorous, ironic, or bizarre in the duplicity of Kuklinski’s life.  It could have been turned to a more broader perspective on American life, like Demme’s Blow (2001) or Dominik’s Killing Them Softly (2012), viewed through the prism of crime and criminal culture. The material and ideas are there.

Vromen’s film is a solid drama though not utterly notable.  It’s nice to see Winona in a bigger role, though.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 09/15/2013

I was already a little burned out on The Lord of the Rings before we began watching The Return of the King.  And it turned out that the kids were as well.  Not that they entirely realized it.

Peter Jackson’s Academy Award-winning finale is the longest of his trilogy and arguably actually the weakest.  It’s not just fatigue with the story and general tiresomeness of sitting through so many hours, but it’s not as compelling, it seems either.  His winning the Oscar for Best Picture for the film was more of a tip of the hat for the overall accomplishment of such a massive epic rendering relayed through the three films.  That seemed clear even at the time.  Besides, Hollywood loves commercial success.

In revisiting the series for the first time in a decade, my main thoughts are that the casting and designs are the best qualities of the films.  Elijah Wood and Sean Astin are quite a good pair as Frodo and Sam and their hobbit bromance.  Ian McKellen is great as Gandalf and everyone else is pretty good as whoever else they are.  And the digitally-enhanced New Zealand is very impressive and awesome.  Heck, even the orcs are lovingly repulsive.

The digital effects have aged okay.  As I’ve noted, there are some digital “camera shots” that I think look more dated than other effects.  I still stand by the statement that digital effects overall seem to age badly.  Gollum still reads pretty well, but I think it’s more to do with the character development in this.  The digital Gollum was a breakthrough in its day, but actor Andy Sirkis brought a lot of that to life in ways that will perhaps keep the film fresh for years to come.

But the finale was all about fatigue.  I asked Felix which film he liked most and he said that he thought The Two Towers (2002) was his favorite.  He couldn’t really say why, but I think that the Gollum character is a key part of the trilogy’s arc (at least the film trilogy) and he has his best moments in The Two Towers.  Both Felix and Clara enjoyed the series overall but focused a lot less throughout this one.  I think we’re all glad it’s over.

It was still very amusing and very “meta” for me and them as they viewed it through the influence of LEGO The Lord of the Rings video gaming, which added familiarity at a removed level, something I encountered only vicariously through them.

Maybe one day, they’ll read the books.

Cloud Atlas (2012)

Cloud Atlas (2012) movie poster

directors Lana Wachowski, Tom Tykwer, Andy Wachowski
viewed: 09/08/2013

I’ve often noted that lowered expectations can be good for certain films.

I’ve heard that the book, Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, is a very good read.  But seeing the trailers for Cloud Atlas the movie from Andy & Lana Wachowski and Tom Tykwer, I wasn’t imagining anything particularly good.  Halle Berry with weird electrodes on her head, Tom Hanks in various costumes, leaping Japanese woman in some fantasy world.  Some sense of uber/meta-narrative sprawl, time-spanning multi-narrative from the team behind Speed Racer (2008) looked to promise nothing good.

The movie got mixed reviews.  Some described the imaginings that I had projected on the film from the trailer.  Some raved about the multiple narratives, multiple character performances, interweaving stories across millennia.  And that is what DVD is good for.  Commitment is less.  Cost is less.  Willing to give things a shot.  But even with the DVD at home from Netflix, I wondered to myself why I’d rented it if I anticipated it sucking so much.

There are points of annoyance in this film.  You can see that the actors LOVED getting to play such different roles with such ranging and extreme make-up and costume.  And that the make-up and costume people LOVED getting to put them together.  There is almost something inherently annoying in that.  And dodgy in some cases of make-up (Asian-izing actors for one sequence in particular).  And patois (Tom Hanks’ “language” as the primitive is like goofy bad Cajun.)

But there is a lot that does work here as well.

I can’t compare it to the book, since I haven’t read it.  I can only imagine that if the book is as good as I’ve heard that it’s still better than the movie.  But the movie is really successful in ways that it seemed unrealistic to believe.

The Wachowskis, if you think about it, really have very little of greatness to their credit.  The first The Matrix (1999) film (which I haven’t seen in ages) was a watershed in science fiction and action design.  And their prior film, Bound (1996), I recall being good too.  But then came The Matrix Reloaded (2003), The Matrix Revolutions (2003) and later Speed Racer.  Varying levels of bad.

But here they teamed up with Tom Twyker who burst onto the scene with Run, Lola, Run (1998), which he followed up with The Princess and the Warrior (2000), and has made a number of respectable films since.  Nothing super notable, nothing tragically terrible.

For Cloud Atlas, they seem to have split up the time frames that the film covers.  So, it’s not entirely easy to assign success or blame to the film’s qualities.  I’ll just say that the film is not great and probably fails at its ambitious best but is really a pretty interesting and decent film.  I was surprised that I liked it at all, much less fairly well.  And I say that not trying to sound as condescending as it probably does.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 09/07/2013

The kids wanted to watch The Lord of the Rings, march right through the series.  I warned them that these movies are all loooong.  At three hours, though, The Two Towers is much shy of the finale in length.

I hadn’t revisited the films since seeing them in the theater a decade ago on their initial release.  They are epic enough once.

The films are largely wonderfully cast and designed.  The worlds of Middle Earth and the characters find beautiful rendering in Peter Jackson’s films.

But here in 2013, we are dealing with Jackson’s hubristic The Hobbit (2012) series, pumped up as long as the whole The Lord of the Rings trilogy, while based on a much more slim volume.  So, some cynicism has arisen in my heart at Jackson, even in viewing this older films.

Not entirely fair.  But there you go.

The kids really enjoyed the film.  Gollum makes for an interesting and sympathetic hook.  Felix actually fell asleep for the last hour of the film and caught up watching it with Clara the next day.  She gladly sat through the ending again.  Still influenced by Felix’s playing of LEGO The Lord of the Rings.

We’re all ready to watch the finale next Saturday.

Twixt (2011)

Twixt (2011) movie poster

director Francis Ford Coppola
viewed: 09/05/2013

Twixt: Three things.

1) Director/writer Francis Ford Coppola.

When you’ve made The Godfather (1972), The Conversation (1974), The Godfather Part II (1974), and Apocalypse Now (1979), you can kind of have a pass on a lot of other stuff.  Coppola’s reputation isn’t built on flimsy stuff (though it has been a long, long time since I’ve seen any of those films).  And while he had some decent stuff in the 1980’s, I’ve come to think of him as one of the most over-rated directors in the world.

But now, I realize that my perception has been entirely imbued (and for many years imbued) by his godforsaken film Jack (1996) which starred Robin Williams in one of the most annoying film experiences that I have ever had.

But I’m realizing now that all of my dislike and discredit goes back to that film.  It’s probably neither fair nor accurate.

Twixt is a low-budget, self-produced horror story that Coppola filmed largely on his own property in Northern California.  It’s pretty bad in its own right.  It doesn’t really atone in the least for Jack.  But it’s not unenjoyable.

It’s hackneyed and almost goofy but I didn’t hate it.

2) Elle Fanning.

Here she plays a gothy ghost/vampire.  Not much of a role really.  She’s quite striking.  Far less so than in J.J. Abrams Super 8 (2011) in which she utterly stood out.  But she’s intriguing, still.  Certainly part of what drew me to watch the film.

3) Val Kilmer.

Jeez.  Last seen (by me) in The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009), it’s hard not to look at him and think, “Wow.  What happened to you?”

I know this is terrible but he’s puffy and bloated, a far cry from the sex symbol he was in his days as Jim Morrison in The Doors (1991) or Batman in Batman Forever (1996).  I know, those are all two decades ago and I’m hardly any improved myself, but jeez.  He doesn’t look so well.

He’s actually still pretty good as an actor.  He plays a hack horror writer who stumbles on a haunted little town on a book tour and becomes enmeshed in things.  He gets to do some comedic impersonations, which are kind of superfluous, but still impressive.

He’s pretty good in the film.  But yoiks.

P.S. Bruce Dern is always cool.

Phantasm 2 (1988)

Phantasm 2 (1988) movie poster

director Don Corsceceli
iviewed: 09/05/2013

Don Corsceceli’s 1979 horror film Phantasm was an oddball, remarkable piece of American indie filmmaking, one that added flying pronged silver balls to the visual language of the genre.  By the late 1980’s the push for horror sequels for franchise was drilling its way through the heyday of gory horror flicks and much beyond its sell-by date, Corsceceli got a chance to return to the well (wow, how many mixed metaphors can I squeeze into a sentence?)

Phantasm was a film that I saw back in the day and found it freaky and weird, standing out in a crowded litany of bloody horror films of the period.  I was pretty over it and cynical by the late 1980’s and certainly never got around to seeing Phantasm II (as far as I can recall).  But having just re-watched Phantasm, I was curious about Corsceceli’s other films and thought I’d give it a go.  Especially because revisiting Phantasm showed it to be still one of the stranger, more surreal and inventive films, even to my current mind.

Turns out that while Phantasm II is unsurprisingly no Phantasm, it is conversely still surprisingly decent.

It takes place some years after the events of the first film, with James LeGros filling in as the main character, Mike, recently released from a mental institution.  He meets up with Reggie (Reggie Bannister of the first film, a sort of Michael Ironside doppelganger) and they go to hunting The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm reprising his role) with chainsaws and shotguns amid small town cemeteries and mausoleums.  This time, there are girls in tow (including the very cute Sam Phillips) and some interesting gore effects.

The film extends the story of the world of Phantasm but doesn’t really reinvent the wheel too much.  It’s not as surprising or clever as the first film, but quite enjoyable on its own terms.

The flying silver ball has some added upgrades.  You’d kind of expect that, though.

Corsceceli went on to do two more Phantasm films, though they ended up direct-to-video.  My curiosity is piqued somewhat but I’m thinking I’m going to leave it at two for right now.