The Last Unicorn (1982)

The Last Unicorn (1982) movie poster

directors Jules Bass, Arthur Rankin, Jr.
viewed: 01/25/2014

Planning a movie night for Clara and a friend of hers, I decided to opt for movies that might appeal more to young girls, rather than showing what I’ve had on tap for my kids.  I gave Clara a choice of The Last Unicorn, Rango (2011), of The Secret of NIMH (1982), among others, playing online trailers for them for her selection.  She ended up going for The Last Unicorn she said because it was the one that she hadn’t seen.  Fair enough, I thought, as the last time I watched it with the kids was 2007 when she would have been 3.

From Jules Bass and Arthur Rankin, Jr., known more broadly as Rankin and Bass, the team that brought numerous stop-motion holiday television programs to us throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s as well as the television version of The Hobbit (1977), the film has the studio’s unique character design and more unfortunately, the television quality of animation.  This quality or lack thereof has more to do with what I believe is known as “limited animation”, where the characters move only when necessary, and perhaps the number of frames per second are not as perfectly matched.

That is because aspects of the animation are nice, like the backgrounds, and perhaps the unicorn herself, particularly when she becomes human.  Like so much animation even theoretically produced in the US, the real cel by cel work was shipped off to Asia, in this case Japan, to a studio that would go on to work with Hayao Miyazaki on Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind (1984)  and eventually form the core of Studio Ghibli.  But the production quality here is limited in comparison, another relatively good example of the dark age of animation, the late 1970’s to early 1980’s.

Adapted from a novel by Peter S. Beagle, it’s a fantasy tale of the titular unicorn, voiced by Mia Farrow, looking for where all the other unicorns disappeared to.  It turns out a selfish king has a giant, fiery red bull that has pushed them all into the sea for his amusement.  The core story and characters are actually the film’s true quality.  That may sound strange to say but the film has other detractors that wind up lessening its overall quality.

The biggest problem with the film is the soundtrack by America.  It’s cheesy enough sounding, but the lyrics are also appalling and embarrassing to fathom.  This may be a taste issue, I suppose, but I am willing to posit that it is actually pretty awful, not just my opinion.  And the worst moment of the film is actually when Mia Farrow sings.  It’s the only song that comes in the diagetic world of the film, the others are just soundtrack music.  Farrow does a good job voicing the unicorn but she is so off-key that it’s kind of shocking they let her go with it.  Jeff Bridges, who voices the prince, duets with her, and also struggles with the tune.  Maybe it is the key, who knows.  It’s appalling.

The voice casting of Alan Arkin as Schmendrick the magician also seems weird.  So weird, that it almost makes one question all of the voice casting.  But in reality the film has a good cast and some, like Farrow, are quite good.

The girls liked the film.  You know, girls and unicorns, right?  Just kidding.  But they did enjoy it.

My only other thing is that when I wrote about this back in 2007, I wrote that I hadn’t seen the film back in the day.  Strangely, over time since then, I’ve come to think that I had seen it at some point.  It seems relatively likely, but now I must say that I don’t know.  Too bad I wasn’t keeping a film diary back in 1982.

13 Frightened Girls (1963)

13 Frightened Girls (1963) movie poster

director William Castle
viewed: 01/24/2014

For my little William Castle mini-marathon, I decided to watch his films that I hadn’t seen and I chose to watch them in order of the available movies from Fearnet.  While 13 Frightened Girls sounds vaguely like 13 Ghosts (1960) in title, it’s actually quite the departure in content and style.

First off, it’s not a horror film at all, but a kids spy movie, light, comical, whimsical, and with no William Castle gimmick to be seen.  It’s about 13 girls (I guess that the gimmick was in the casting of the 13 young women) who are the daughters of diplomats from around the world.  They go to a school together, like tween Madelines, but all the fun happens when they go on break and back to their London embassies.

The intrigue surrounds the American “Candy” who is in puppy love with Wally, her father’s top spy operative.  Overhearing a blip of information about a Soviet who wants to seek asylum, Kathy finds herself in madcap dangers, in visiting her friend from “Red” China, Mai-Ling, whose uncle and his henchmen have killed the asylum-seeker, apparently to keep some Cold War secrets secret.

You know, it’s super silly, aimed at a pretty young audience, playing off of the kittenish cattyness of young teenage girls from a much more innocent age.  The intrigue is pretty whimsical too.  It may not be great by any estimate, but it’s actually kind of cute.  Actually maybe it’s pretty cute.  Saccharine too, but cute.

It’s kind of funny because there are stereotypes upon stereotypes as you would expect in a 1963 image of representatives of the world, etched in super short-hand.  But it’s not nearly as offensive as it could have been.  Perhaps it’s not too bad in that department.

It’s interesting because the girls from the Communist countries like Russia and China and (Germany?) are cliquish but they exclude Mai-Ling mainly because she is the youngest girl at the school.  So Candy genuinely befriends her, though she gets up to all kinds of mischief in her striving to solve the mysteries.  And in the end, when the girls are separated by the clashing ideologies and suspicious adults, there is a mild sadness in this friendship between two girls from these very different worlds.

The film is not all that deep in any area, but I did think it was kind of interesting, it’s playing with these various cultural images, particularly at the point in the Cold War that the film was made.  It’s far from profound but it was kind of sweet.  I actually kind of wished I’d watched it with Clara.  I think she would have liked it.

Mr. Sardonicus (1961)

Mr. Sardonicus (1961) movie poster

director William Castle
viewed: 01/24/2014

The second film of my mini-William Castle film festival was his 1961 film, Mr. Sardonicus.

Mr. Sardonicus differs from the other of Castle’s films that I’ve seen in that it’s a period piece, set in London in the 19th century.  It echoes perhaps of the films of Val Lewton or classic Univeral horror films in a way.

It’s the story of a man whose face has been contorted permanently into a crazy ghoulish grin due that came about when he dug up his dead father to retrieve a winning lottery ticket.  His face is supposed to mimic the rictus on the face of his father’s corpse.  He lures a talented surgeon to his castle to try to cure him of his permanent problem.  But he’s a most unscrupulous man, testing all kinds of heinous tortures on women, just as gruesome in the soul as on his face.

The image of Mr. Sardonicus is one of those odd icons of horror made forever famous by Famous Monsters of Filmland.  So it was kind of cool to see it in context.

The dialog is actually pretty good in the film, written as it was by Ray Russell from his short story “Sardonicus” to which Castle had purchased the rights.  As a horror film on its own, it’s a bit more straightforward and less gimmicky than Castles other films.

Not to say it’s without a gimmick.  This film featured a vote by the audience, to further punish Mr. Sardonicus or to let him off the hook.  Audience members were given a voting card, and of course, Castle appears onscreen and counts to votes in the momentary break with the narrative.  Of course, the audience votes to see further punishment, even when you watch it on tv like I did.

13 Ghosts (1960)

13 Ghosts (1960) movie poster

director William Castle
viewed: 01/24/2014

When posed with the opportunity of a William Castle mini-marathon, one must simply, gladly accept.  This is sort of how my Friday night started out.  Of the Xfinity/Comcast on demand free movie channels, Fearnet, has long had some good fare, but I only noticed that they were showing these films in letterboxed format and that they had several William Castle pics available.  So, I indulged.

Castle was quite a character, adding a lot of showbiz to his flicks.  For 13 Ghosts, the gimmick was Illusion-O, where audience members were given a viewing device that was basically a little cardboard with a blue and a red cellophane window to look through.  The “ghost” sequences were shown in red and blue (as opposed to the rest of the film’s black and white) and the idea was that if you were too afraid of ghosts you could basically filter them out by looking through the red window.  And if you were brave enough, you looked through the blue, which I guess would have enhanced them.

Sadly, one of the downsides of a Castle film of this period is that you don’t get all the extras.  They’re still quite a bit of fun.

13 Ghosts has a wonderful opening where the ghosts appear in rather gruesome design, counting down, from 1 to the ? of 13.  The rest of the film is a kind of silly, but fun story of a family that inherits a supposedly haunted house from a rich uncle who researched and captured ghosts all over the world.  He also hid his fortune in the house in cash somewhere.

I actually think that  13 Ghosts is a little more eerie than The House on Haunted Hill (1959), though it’s not an entirely different set-up.  It’s a fun, goofy, good old time.

Scarlet Street (1945)

Scarlet Street (1945) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 01/23/2014

I’ve long been meaning to see more of Fritz Lang’s American films.  I’ve really seen quite few.

Scarlet Street is a film noir remake of Jean Renoir’s La Chienne (1931), starring Edward G. Robnison as I’ve never seen him, a meek cashier who earns his gold watch at his company, a henpecked fellow, who has sublimated his life to live peaceably until he runs into the wrong femme fatale, Joan Bennett, whose wiseguy boyfriend, Dan Duryea smells an opportunity to milk the poor schmuck for all he’s worth.  Only Bennett and Duryea are under the impression that he’s worth a lot more than he is.  In their clutches he steals from his wife and his office to pay for an upscale apartment for the gal.  These stories never end well.

There is a convoluted plot about how Robinson is a great painter, though he never was discovered.  Until Duryea tries to sell the work pretending that Bennett was the artist.  It’s too much to recap.

But in the end, Robinson ends up stabbing Bennett with an ice pick in a moment of fury, but leaves Duryea on the hook as the killer.  One of the notable traits of the film is that it ends with the wrong man going to the chair for the crime and the once kind, upstanding milquetoast wandering homeless on the streets of New York.  It’s bleak and pessimistic, especially for Hollywood of this time.

Duryea is great.  Such a character, with his thin yadda-yadda patter, “Great cats!”  And Robinson is very good.  I’ve only seen him in films where he’s the heavy, so it’s quite a different role.  And Bennett is quite good too as “la chienne”, the bitch, if you will, though I still prefer femme fatale.  Quite good stuff, this.

The Canyons (2013)

The Canyons (2013) movie poster

director Paul Schraeder
viewed: 01/23/2014

The Canyons is a movie that is nowhere as interesting as the scuttlebutt of the making of the movie, captured brilliantly in Stephen Rodrick’s article for the New York Times “Here is What You Get When You Cast Lindsay Lohan in Your Movie”.  Sad, but true.

Still, you’ve got director Paul Schraeder, writer Bret Easton Ellis, and producer Braxton Pope going off the studio reservation to make a movie without intervention, on the cheap, even Kickstarter-ed.  And they cast tabloid queen Lindsay Lohan fresh out of rehab and porn star James Deen in a film about sex and death and Hollywood.  And movies.

You may say to yourself that it sounds like it couldn’t turn out well.  And it doesn’t.  It’s not an abysmal failure, but it’s pretty bad.  Lohan and Deen actually are part of the film’s qualities, though frankly Lohan is not anything special as an actress.  If not for her childhood film career and public partying and problems, she would be pretty lacking in notability.

Schraeder is one of those directors of whose films I can’t say I’ve really liked any particularly.  He’s drawn to interesting material often, written some good scripts for Martin Scorsese, but his career has been petering out toward fizzle for some time.  Again, the Times article is a good read.

The film’s subtext is perhaps more notable than its main text.  This story about these rich, attractive, amoral Hollywood types and their controlling, convoluted relationships isn’t overly fascinating.  They all vacuously obsess with their phones and their hollow endings are almost predestined.

But the film opens with shots of abandoned movie houses, cinemas, theaters, throughout Los Angeles.  And this is the film’s primary subtext, the death of the movies.  In the film, there is a movie being made, in which a young actor, Ryan (Nolan Gerald Funk), is ostensibly struggling to get a lead role in.  It’s produced in part by Deen and Lohan, but nobody believes in the movie, no one really cares or wants to go to where its going to be made.  Ultimately it’s not even made.  Deen’s character shoots his own movies, sex movies, on his phone.  That’s all he needs.  Lohan’s character asks the question, “When is the last time you went to the theater and saw something that you really cared about?”

It’s a bit of sour grapes, though there are some pointed aspects as well.  This is Hollywood where they are filming.  Everyone just wants sex or power or something.  They are all pretty hollow beings.  Ironically, really, Hollywood has always been about power and producers, sex, control.  It may well be that the caliber of the filmmaker has fallen into the hands of people who absolutely don’t really care about movies anymore.  Other than their own sexcapades recorded on their cell phones.

It’s funny because this film could have been a real freeing process for Schraeder and crew.  Some have truly embraced the low cost technologies and production to make films on the cheap, either in the style of Mumblecore or just more guerrilla-style filmmaking.  Instead, it’s just been a course in further cynicism, burnout, failure, certainly not made better by Lohan’s off-screen antics and failures around the film.

The Act of Killing (2012)

The Act of Killing (2012) movie poster

director Joshua Oppenheimer
viewed: 01/21/2014

The Act of Killing is a tremendous film.  Director Joshua Oppenheimer shot the film over a process and period of eight years, attempting to document first hand stories about events in Indonesia that began in the mid 1960’s an uprising that led to the Suharto government coming to power, ousting the Communists with financial and overall support of The West that resulted in the murders of 1 to 2.5 million people, mainly suspected Communists and ethnic Chinese.  While his attempts to interview victims were challenged because the government that perpetrated these crimes is still in power, he found ready access to surviving perpetrators, only too happy to boast of the murders and the past, as they are national heroes to this day.

The immediate analogy that jumps to mind is to imagine if the Nazis had won WWII and stayed in power for 50-60 years after, how the members of the SS would be heralded as heroes, their crimes probably more tacitly understood, but considered to have been justified by their success and endurance.

Oppenheimer focuses the film on a few key perpetrators, men who were leaders of organized death squads, in particular Anwar Congo, still allied with the paramilitary organizations in the present day, heralded by the then Vice President of Indonesia.  Congo himself is credited with up to 1000 murders by his own hands.  And most bizarrely Oppenheimer gets Congo and other cronies to reenact their crimes for a film, in styles of their beloved Hollywood movies.  They very willingly participate, dressing up, acting out events, playing various characters throughout, reliving murders, including a raid of a village that wiped out its entire populace.

It’s a very convoluted sort of approach but it’s one that makes amazing sense.  These gangsters started as very low level criminals, running gambling and shakedowns but also hawking cinema tickets during the height of popularity of American movies in Indonesia.  The then Communist government cracked down on American films, incensing these criminals, helping to politicize them by the opposition, which kicked off the blood-letting and immense brutality.  These men modeled their behaviors and even some of their crimes on the Hollywood gangsters and images.  These men were deeply inflected by cinema, so this strange caprice of having them act out their histories on film is something that appeals to their egos intensely.

The resultant film is a mixture of interviews, the process of making the reenactments, the reenactments themselves, even the watching of the reenactments.  And in the depths of the process, moments of great truth play out against some strikingly surreal images and moments.

It’s utterly apropos that Hannah Arendt’s commentary about “the banality of evil” regarding the Nazis comes so swiftly to mind in hearing these old men retelling tales of torture, rape and murder with such blithe and blase attitude.  To watch Congo with his grandchildren teaching them to be kind to ducklings, contrasted with his own brutality, even sharing with them the film scene in which he plays a character strangled with piano wire.

It’s Anwar Congo’s transformation through the film that resounds so deeply.  At first, dancing the cha cha after bragging of the blood that once coated the floor of the building in which he killed, how he danced from the cinema across the street, like Elvis, to enact his violence, he by the end is reliving these events in the reenactments in a wholly different way.  His own human trauma rises physically if not cognizantly within him.

The whole film is a return of the repressed.  These stories, these truths, are not broadly known in Indonesia or much of the world.  Though the government that committed these acts still is in power, fifty years later, the extent of the genocide is not well-known.  Oppenheimer’s film seeks to bring this truth out to Indonesia and the world, but what is so fascinating is the return of this horror that plays out in the film and its power to effect and astound.

This is by and far one of the greatest documentaries that I’ve ever seen.  It’s unique in its concept and approach and is so profoundly attuned to its subject matter.  It’s not so didactic that you can get all of the knowledge of the past from the film directly.  It plays out in its own internal search for truths, history, and information.  It’s a great, great work of art as well.  An amazing, amazing film that I cannot recommend enough.  Utterly utterly amazing.

I Married a Witch (1942)

I Married a Witch (1942) movie poster

director René Clair
viewed: 01/20/2014

Not a lot to say about this charming comedy starring Fredric March and the lovely Veronica Lake.  It starts at the Salem witch trials in which March’s ancestors burn a witch and her father at the stake, though they manage to inhabit an old tree on the spot for 200 years, eventually escaping into the ether of then present day 1942, where March suffers as his progenitors suffered under the curse of the witch to always be unhappy in love and marriage.

When the she-witch takes physical form, she ends up in the sultry body of Ms. Lake, a sylph for all times, behind that curtain of hair.  She’s very funny as well.

March’s character is tricked into rescuing her from a burning building and her machinations are to make him fall in love with her, only she ends up being the one to down the love potion.  Her rascally father and March’s unpleasant fiancee make for more comical situations.

It’s quite a hoot.

These are the Damned (1963)

These Are the Damned (1963) movie poster

director Joseph Losey
viewed: 01/20/2014

I stumbled on this movie a couple years back, reading about it on TCM’s blog moviemorlocks.com.  And I watched part of it, actually most of it.  I can’t recall why I didn’t watch all of it.  I only write about films that I watch in their entirety, so I certainly didn’t manage to do that.

I’d never heard of it before then, but it’s a very interesting film from the Hammer Studios in England, directed by American exile Joseph Losey.  It’s a strange amalgam of genres with a gang-like “youth in revolt” theme contrasting against an almost surreal Cold War story about a group of radioactive children who are kept in an underground bunker by the military as the one hope for mankind in a post-nuclear war world.  They are the only ones who could survive afterwards, you see.  And so they are being raised as proper British children.

It’s not utterly unlike Village of the Damned (1960) and it’s kind of funny how reminiscent the posters are for the films.  Only these “Damned” are the poor irradiated children, hidden away from the world, speaking properly and respectfully, as the hope of humanity in a demented government perspective.  The “Damned” of the other film are far more dubious, alien children who are creepy and dangerous.

Oliver Reed plays King, the leader of a teddy boy street gang, who even have their own jiving theme song.  They are petty thugs, selfish, unsophisticated, ready to trash the world.  They live in the decaying seaside town of Weymouth, which is actually very interestingly used as the backdrop for the film, from its small seaside town and wharf to the rugged wild cliffs in which the children are hidden away.

It’s when an older American named Simon (Macdonald Carey) gets lured into a mugging by King’s teddy boys by King’s very pretty sister Joan (Shirley Ann Field), that these two strange worlds get thrust together.  In trying to escape a second beating, Simon and Joan escape via the cliffs and wind up stumbling onto the hidden children.  The children are cold, have never been able to touch a warm person, and their isolation has bred their very specific naivete in them.  And since they are radioactive, they are deadly to those that encounter them.

It’s really quite a pessimistic little picture.  The youth of today, the teddy boys and Joan, are hollow hooligans (though Joan shows some humanity and desire for something more), but the idealized perfect little children are sickened mutants, isolated from society, and yet somehow its only hope?   I guess it’s also interesting as a Cold War film that isn’t post-apocalyptic but predestined to apocalypse.

Prisoners (2013)

Prisoners (2013) movie poster

director Denis Villeneuve
viewed: 01/20/2014

I don’t have a lot to say about Prisoners, the child abduction thriller in the desperate father (Hugh Jackman) winds up kidnapping and torturing a mentally deficient suspect, while the good guy cop (Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to solve the crime legitimately.

It’s a functional drama.  It’s okay.

The best thing about it, I think was Roger Deakins cinematography, which captures the icy world of early winter in semi-rural Pennsylvania.

That’s all I got.