Mystics in Bali (1981)

Mystics in Bali (1981) title card

director H. Tjut Djalil
viewed: 12/30/2013

When you’ve seen one Indonesian exploitation horror film from the 1980’s, you’ve….well, you’ve only seen one.  And that is exactly where I’d been sitting since watching Lady Terminator (1988), oddly enough, another film by director H. Tjut Djalil.

And oddly enough, though perhaps less so, considering it’s the same director, we’ve got a sort of similar theme running here.  An American woman comes to Bali to investigate the native black arts of the island, known as “Leyak”.  She has an affable, knowledgeable guide, a romantic interest fellow from Bali, who introduces her to a witch queen who initiates her into her wildly cackling brand of dark magic.

The theme is similar in that in Lady Terminator, we also had a foreign woman come to investigate a traditional mythological idea as well, only to become eternally embroiled in the native evils.  According to the notes on the DVD, the Indonesian exploitation movies started as films for the local market and so focused on local lore and stories, but toward the end the films tried to get marketed abroad and so brought in actors from outside the country.  And thus, these gems of strangeness.

Mystics in Bali is crazy camp hilarity.  The German actress who plays the American is easily the worst in the film.  Between her and our hero, we have two people out of whom it’s very hard to get a decent reaction.

But the best camp is in the special effects which are wonderfully lo-fi and yet quite involved and relatively evocative.  We’ve got a long prosthetic tongue drawing on a leg, two women transforming into pigs and then snakes, and best of all, a head that detaches (along with what I guess is the spinal column) and flies through the air, eating babies out of the birth canals of pregnant mothers.  And lots of little animated zaps and magic bolts.

It’s clunky, cheap and brilliant.  As bad and laughable as it is, it would be totally ruined with some Mystery Science 3000 “laugh track”.  This film needs to be seen to be enjoyed.

The funniest line from the movie, and I hope I get this right is when a group of elder mystics are sitting around discussing the strange attacks and one guy says, “The accounts say…that it’s a flying head.”  To which everybody nods, as if he’d just said it was a bunch of wild teenagers.  I don’t know.  File under: needs to be seen to be believed.

Some Like It Hot (1959)

Some Like it Hot (1959) movie poster

director Billy Wilder
viewed: 12/29/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

I finally got to take the kids to see the marvelous Some Like It Hot, and at the Castro, no less.  I last saw it at the Castro three years ago and had contemplated taking them to see it with me then.  Ever since, it’s been on the periphery of our film queue.  But I’m glad that we got to see it on the big screen, the last of a series of Sundays at the Castro that started with To Catch a Thief (1955) and It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).

They didn’t have a lot to go on about the film.  I told them it was about two musicians who witness a mob hit in Chicago and join an all-girl band, dressing as women, to escape the gangsters.  I also told them that it was one of my favorite movies, considered by many to be one of the best comedies of all time, and that I’d been into it from a time when I was younger than they are now.

Still, I wasn’t entirely sure how they would like it.

But they loved it.

It was the biggest hit of the three classics that we screened in those three weeks and it made it to both of their “best of” lists for the year (something I’ve only just queried them on for the first time.

What can I say?  It, like so many things, was even more fun for me to watch with them in tow, laughing and smiling at each other over the silly, madcap fun.

And I kind of fall for Marilyn every time I see it.

Dumbo (1941)

Dumbo (1941) movie posterI

directors various
viewed: 12/28/2013

It was funny when I queued up Dumbo for the kids.  When Felix asked me what we were watching, I told him Dumbo and he had no idea what I was talking about.  I told him it was about an elephant with great big ears.  It was clear he hadn’t any idea about it.  Clara had a comic/storybook with the story so she knew it somewhat.

Me, I hadn’t seen it in gosh knows how long.  I think I clearly avoided the situation of inundating my kids with Disney, the whole “Princess army” and so forth, but I am an aficionado of animation and we’ve seen our fair share of the Disney canon.  I do think we’re being a bit selective here.

Dumbo, for my generation, was one of the tearjerkers of Disney.  When they take the little, insulted, ostracized elephant from his mother…well, that’s where Felix commented how “sentimental” the movie was.  I gotta admit, it’s heavy-handed.  And I probably saw it more around the age of five than twelve.

For my money, I always liked the crows and “When I See an Elephant Fly”.  It’s a good bit, a catchy tune with lots of funny puns.  Sure, the crows verge heavily into stereotypes but they are also good characters and fun and funny.

Really, the best part of the film is the “Pink Elephants on Parade”, the drunken, surreal sequence that is the film’s break with reality.  It’s actually slightly protracted, which as a discerning animation fan I think is cool.  It’s stark and much more two-dimensional, morphing and poppy, quite a contrast with the rest of the film.  As a child, I think it struck me as weird.  Again, as a very young child.  It is weird.  That’s what’s cool about it.

Dumbo was the fourth feature film from Disney and it reflects the cheaper budget in comparison with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), and Fantasia (1940).  The lush, extravagant era of Disney feature animation gave way to a leaner product.  Still, the staff was top-notch.  It’s no hack-job.

It wasn’t a favorite for either Felix or Clara, but, you know, it’s a sweet film.  Only 64 minutes.

Out of the Past (1947)

Out of the Past (1947) movie poster

director Jacques Tourneur
viewed: 12/27/2013

Considered by some to be the archetype of the Film Noir, Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past has long been a personal favorite of mine as well.  I’m a big Tourneur fan in general, but like a lot of things, I got turned onto this film, Tourneur, and a lot of other cinema from the half year I spent in Sheffield, England.

I was staying with the woman that I would eventually marry and three other young schoolteachers.  But I was on a tourist visa, no way to work or go to school, just washing the dishes, reading a lot, and watching a lot of telly.  Of course, four channels in the UK at the time still broadcast a lot better stuff than hundreds plus do on cable over here.  And for my luck, it was 1995, the centennial of cinema, and so both the BBC and Channel 4 had tons of great stuff showing day and night throughout.  And with only The Guardian‘s short blurbs to guide me, I discovered any number of those things in those months.

Across the pond, Out of the Past  is known as Build My Gallows High, adapted by author Daniel Mainwaring from his novel of the same name.  With Robert Mitchum as the retired gumshoe who is re-embroiled in his old life by affable villain Kirk Douglas, and gorgeous femme fatale, Jane Greer, it’s set up and down in California, Arizona, Mexico, and Lake Tahoe, a true West Coast noir.

I don’t know what else to add to what others have written about the film.  It had been some while since I’d last seen it, which I think was at the Roxie Theater some years back.   I guess everyone has their favorite noirs.  My other two would probably be Edgar Ulmer’s Detour (1945) and Robert Siodmak’s Phantom Lady (1944), though as much noir as I’ve seen, I’m constantly reminded how much more of it there is.  Still, this is one with which you cannot go wrong.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 12/27/2013 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

I’d actually decided that I could skip this one in the theater.  The first film in the Hobbit trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) gave us a pretty good sense of what to expect: it’s long, it’s got storylines that never came near the book, and a lot more fighting, to boot.  After hearing a few key critiques of The Desolation of Smaug, I really wasn’t too bothered about seeing this on the big screen.

But Felix wanted to.  Frankly, for all the movies that we go see, it’s quite rare the one that I am begged by the kids to see.  And Clara wanted to see it too.  Though her mother thought the movie was too long and too fight-filled for her.  I disagree but I don’t usually bother fighting these battles.  So, just Felix and I saw it.

What’s to say that hasn’t already been said?

Quite frankly, there is less of The Hobbit in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug than there was in the first film (so it seems).  There are so many supplemental additions, started in An Unexpected Journey and broadened out.  For instance, we’ve got Legolas (Orlando Bloom, reprising his The Lord of the Rings role, unsurprisingly looking older and more filled out than a decade ago.  He of course is not in the book.  And there is his love interest Tauriel (a very beautiful Evangeline Lilly), who J.R.R. Tolkien never created himself.  And the orcs, who also don’t exist in the book, now teeming with orc baddies and this bigger backstory of Sauron.

There is less of the hobbit, Bilbo (Martin Freeman) in this Hobbit as well.  He’s more of a side character.  It’s like it’s not even his story anymore.  Well, I guess it isn’t.

I’m willing to speculate that the screen time of scenes from the actual book versus screen time for scenes added or modified from the book, that there really is less of The Hobbit in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug than there is Peter Jackson-added junk.

And junk it is.  None of the added components add anything to the film but time, confusion, and tripe.  I began to speculate that perhaps when all three films are finished that someone could edit out all of the extraneous stuff and maybe there is a two hour movie, true(r) to the book, that could be quite enjoyable.

Maybe comparing it to the book is the wrong angle.  So setting that aside for a moment, I’ll say that the film has some good sequences, some nice casting, the dragon is pretty cool.  But it’s nearly three hours of action and drama and isn’t all that compelling.

Even Felix was a little stunned by the worst moment in the film, the giant golden statue of a dwarf that the dwarfs somehow manage to cast that then melts down to liquid to temporarily annoy the dragon.  It’s not just how preposterous and bizarre such a conception is, how far removed from the original text, but it looks like utter crap as well.

Felix thought the movie was okay, but he too was astounded by breadth and girth of this three movie series and couldn’t understand why you need to add all this stuff in the first place.  He’s long suggested that the third film would be the worst in the series because only about 20 pages of book is left to tell.  It’s just a big battle (which Tolkien doesn’t really detail — it’s not the point — the point is that the war is pointless).  And I easily imagine he is right.  Jackson did leave it on a cliffhanger of sorts, with Smaug taking to the sky and not yet being slain.  So we’ll have that next year.

Unless we decide to forgo it.

Horrors of Malformed Men (1969)

Horrors of Malformed Men (1969) movie poster

director Teruo Ishii
viewed: 12/26/2013

Sort of a surrealist Island of Lost Souls (1932)/”Island of Dr. Moreau” prismed through the Japanese exploitation lens, and if Dr. Moreau was a transvestite Charles Manson-type.  With a little more ambition, you could throw in some David Cronenbergian body horror too.  And then there is the whole Butoh style of performance splattered throughout.

Adapted from works by Edogawa Ranpo, the film is considered an example of Ero Guro, a melding of the erotic and the grotesque, a style hearkening back to 1930’s Japan, and coming as it does at the end of the 1960’s, ends up being a precursor of the more contemporary Pink film.  All in all, it’s very Japanese, and could well lead to some generalizations about how the Japanese indeed have the propensity of being one of the outre cultures of the world.

The film begins in a dream fugue, with a young doctor imprisoned in an insane asylum (with a lot of kooky semi-naked women (calling to mind vaguely Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) to an extent)).  He’s haunted by a childhood lullaby and can’t recall who he is.  He escapes to a seaside village where a doppelgänger of his has just passed away from a prominent family.  He assumes the resurrected identity of the man and investigates the strange world therein, especially the island theme park that the patriarch has been developing, a freakshow of his own making, his surgically malformed men.

The film ends with an incestual romance, explosions, body parts flying through the air, disembodied hands still holding hands.  Superbly bizarre.

The only downside is the film’s typical detective-style explanation that comes toward the end.  The detective shows up to explain everything.  And he does.  So, there is a semi-logic that structures all this weirdness.  Only downside.

It’s a wacky film.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010)

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga (2010) movie poster

directors Dmitry Vasyukov, Werner Herzog
viewed: 12/26/2013

I like Werner Herzog as well as anybody.  He seems like a great guy to have dinner with.  He’s made great films in both narrative and non-fiction and continues to knock movies out right and left on any number of interesting subjects.  And whether the films are great or not, he manages to inject his own generous humanism to everything, often in his own gentle Germanic voiceovers.

Happy People: A Year in the Taiga was recommended to me by more than one person.  It’s about a small village in a very isolated part of Siberia, on the edge of the massive wilderness of the Taiga, people utterly cut off from everything else much of the year.  In particular, it focuses on the trappers who make their lives there, following them through an entire year of hard work, craftsmanship, and personal opinions on life and their world.

The film came about because it was originally shot by Dmitry Vasyukov for Russian television in a series of films with a much longer running time.  Herzog became fascinated with the content and offered to edit the material for export into a 90 minute or so single documentary, with his own narration.  Vasyukov agreed and Herzog had total control after that point.

This might seem sort of weird, but actually, Herzog’s best known documentary Grizzly Man (2005) evolved similarly as Herzog employed tons of footage that was shot by his subject, Timothy Treadwell.  For that film, Herzog shot some interviews of his own and added more material, but you can see how the idea of re-editing someone else’s work into something new was a clear opportunity for him.

It’s easy to see inside Herzog’s mind in certain ways.  He lays it all out there for you.  He tells you what he thinks.  You can see his interest in the way that much of the ways and techniques of these people of the Taiga capture his imagination because they are traditional and generally not modern.  They live in commune with nature, a very rough and brutal nature so frozen and far away.  But that these people are happy and satisfied, this is also his point and focus.

Actually, I think the title isn’t the best.  Sure, they are happy.  But they’re not that happy.  It’s very interesting to watch.  It’s usually quite fun to travel along Herzog’s trails around our world.

Amour (2012)

Amour (2012) movie poster

director Michael Haneke
viewed: 12/25/2013

Last year’s Best Foriegn Film at the Oscars, Michael Haneke’s Amour, really took me a while to get around to seeing.  I like Hanake’s films.  I think he is one of the more interesting active directors in the world, but this one, the story of an octogenarian couple dealing with the declining health of one of them…well, that’s probably a hard sell just about anywhere.

I think Hanake is interesting not just because his films are interesting and that he selects such challenging material for his work but that what can be lost sometimes in looking at his films and dealing with the content or ideas in his films, it’s easy to forget that he’s quite the maestro.  I think I noted in regarding Funny Games (1997) that he has the ability to manage a viewer’s attention like Alfred Hitchcock but overall, he’s not simply interested in leading a viewer through narrative, developing cinematic pleasure.  He’s sort of the opposite, actively trying to develop cinematic discomfort.

I was thinking to myself at one point during Amour that it would have been interesting to see Haneke embrace genre, maybe doing a more straight up horror film (he did sort of do a science fiction film in 2003’s Time of the Wolf.)  But then I realized that all of Haneke’s films are horror films in a way.  The horrors are variant but are deeply ingrained throughout.

I suppose, given the title of the film, Amour, that the focus of the film can be the love between this man and wife, his dedication to caring for her, for doing her will (not forcing her to hospital or hospice), and even the inevitable euthanasia.  It does end with a dream-like departure together and it’s at least in part a love story.

It’s also a horror story, for the woman undergoing the strokes, loss of her physical self-control, shame, embarrassment, for her husband who has to see her suffer through all of this and empathize, but for all of us to know that this is to come for our parents or grandparents, ourselves.   This is the slow degradation of death, the body when it stops operating as it should, for us, for our loved ones, the greatest of indignities and suffering.  We should all be so lucky to have someone to put us out of our misery.

Much has been made of the performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva as the elderly couple.  They are good.  The film is good.  It has an integrity to it and a beauty to it, but it’s also a slog of sorts.  Putting yourself through that.   And for all of the titular “love” evoked, it left me still detached and outside.

I didn’t love Amour.

The Naked Spur (1953)

The Naked Spur (1953) movie poster

director Anthony Mann
viewed: 12/22/2013

After watching a few Westerns with the kids, my appetite has been whetted for more of the same.  I was digging around for lists of the greatest examples of the genre to see what would come up, and sadly the lists I came across didn’t offer so many hot leads but rather a number of films that I have seen.  Maybe what I need is a list of the best B-movie Westerns.

That said, Anthony Mann’s The Naked Spur did show up in a few places.  Mann is one of those auteurs  whose name I became familiar with as I started really getting into cinema. For all that, outside of Winchester ’73 (1950), I’m not sure how many of his films that I’ve actually seen.  I think I saw one when I was living in England, which is actually where I turned the corner on my interest in film and also where I came to know and love the Western.

The Naked Spur is a pretty great film.  It’s a tight concept with a small but very good cast.  James Stewart is hunting for Robert Ryan, a wanted murderer.  He winds up stumbling into a partnership with gristly old timer Millard Mitchell and unsavory roustabout Ralph Meeker as he captures Ryan, who turns out to be travelling with young thing, Janet Leigh.  It’s a game of distrust in all directions, with Ryan cockily trying to wrangle his escape.

Shot on location in Colorado, the settings are beautiful and dramatic and make for a great finale above and in a raging river.

I think I’ll have to queue up the rest of the Anthony Mann/James Stewart Westerns (there are five all together) and more Mann films as I try to get a better handle on them for myself.

It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)

It's a Wonderful Life (1946) movie poster

director Frank Capra
viewed: 12/22/2013 at the Castro Theatre, SF, CA

Unlike most of America, I somehow grew up without Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life  as a staple of Christmas.    Actually, I don’t even know if I ever even saw it as a kid.  I’m not even totally sure when I finally did see it for the first time, perhaps in the early 1990’s.  So, I don’t have personal associations with the film to further color my experience of the film, at least not those ingrained from childhood.

My kids don’t have television at their home.  Well, not live television to watch, so they are not inundated that way by pop culture.  They get it one day a week when they come to my house and get to watch whatever.  I’ve noted before that those television traditions like The Wizard of Oz (1939) or The Sound of Music (1965) or It’s a Wonderful Life have gone the way of the dodo because those were the days of few television channels (few options) and no home video of any kind.  Really, we’ve entered the era of anything you want whenever you want it.  Forced exposure, for better or worse, is a thing of the past.  Still, there are all of us who grew up in that era and whether we grew up with a particular film or not, have been familiarized with the Hollywood Christmas canon.

The week before, I took the kids to see To Catch a Thief (1955) at the Castro Theatre.  This week it was It’s a Wonderful Life.  They really enjoyed it.

First of all, Jimmy Stewart.  I mean, with Harvey (1950) and this film, you’ve got two of his most definitive films.  This is from a rather broad ranging litany of great movies.  It’s pretty much impossible to think of this film with any other actor.  He’s so perfect as George Bailey, the man whose life comes to a crisis on Christmas Eve, nearly ending his life before his guardian angel shows him the world without him and makes him realize his worth and joy.  It’s a tearjerker.

It’s interesting to watch because the film has come to signify (perhaps with a number of others) a definition of American ideals, particularly with the sentiment of the winter holidays.  It does so very successfully, so successfully that it’s easy to just eat it up, and feel that happy glow.  But coming as it does, in 1946, right at the end of WWII, there is nostalgia and small town idealism, populist stuff, perhaps, but things deeper than that as well.

But I don’t feel like digging into it at the moment, though I do feel like seeing some more Frank Capra movies.  I definitely file this one under “enjoyed by all.”