Alphaville (1965)

Alphaville (1965) movie poster

director Jean-Luc Godard
viewed: 05/26/2014

I’ve come, over the years, to be quite the fan of Jean-Luc Godard.  In film school, I think I was more ambivalent to negative, appreciating but not really enjoying any of his films that I’d seen.  But in the years that I’ve been keeping this film diary, I’ve now see most of his early films and have come to particularly and specifically enjoy them.  Personal favorites have been Pierrot le fou (1965) and Bande à part (1964), and while I’ve been watching the films at scattershot over the years, I hadn’t revisited Alphaville, which was an old classmate and friend’s personal favorite.

Alphaville was one of Godard’s films that I preferred in college, but still had mixed feelings about.  It had been fifteen to twenty years ago that I had last seen it and the only reason I hadn’t revisited it was probably because I was making way for the films that I had never seen.

Alphaville is a science fiction film, though being a Godard science fiction film, it’s hardly a thing of pure genre.  In fact, it’s an early example of genre mash-up, if you will, pulling in Eddie Constantine’s Lemmy Caution (a regular detective character that Constantine had played in numerous films over the years), it’s also a hard-boiled noir.  This mixture of noir and science fiction has long been cited as a key influence on Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982), so by proxy, the film has had tremendous stylistic impact.

One of the other extraordinary things about Godard’s choices in the film is the use of no special effects or even set design, costume design to depict a world of “the future”.  Instead, he uses existing buildings and objects that have a particular modernist style, futuristic perhaps, but very much things that existed in France in the mid-1960’s.  The conceit is clever (nothing has to be designed, no speculative future imagined, per se), but it also offers a strange, naturalism to the flavor of the film, naturalism within its very odd artifice.

Because Godard’s films acknowledge film and artifice regularly.  In breaks with narrative, odd moments of humor, toying with the viewer’s expectations.  There is a resultant style that feels distinctly different from other Godard films while remaining extremely typical of Godard.

It’s easy to see the appeal of this noir future stylistically.  It’s something that has developed to a level of cliche over the years, but there is something compelling within it, cultural aesthetics that “speak” louder than words.

And there is Anna Karina, whose loveliness seems to grow on me every time her face appears onscreen.

One funny thing that struck me is that within in the science fiction rubric, Godard’s social critique comes off perhaps less radical.  The genre lends itself so much to social critique, the depiction of any future state reflects a concept of how that state evolves to be, how it reflects the realities of the present in possibly exaggerated fashion, how all science fiction has some “cautionary” nature to its endemic “predictions”.

Godard’s work is typically quite politicized, radical in the way he approaches the goals of each film, sometimes with more overt challenges, sometimes with more play within the pleasures of the cinema.  The experiment of Alphavillie is no less so, but perhaps approaches similarities in the genre even as it strikes out at its conventions.

On top of everything, it’s a “cool” movie.  It’s hip.  You could easily play it at a midnight movie setting or with other cult films and its coolness, ironically played or not, still play as cool.  The black and white frozen modernity is still as stylish today, maybe even more stylish, than it ever was.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963)

The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) movie poster

director Mario Bava
viewed: 05/25/2014

I figure if you’re going to delve into a genre/style that you really haven’t delved into much, a good starting point is the earliest sample of the genre.  After watching Lucio Fulci’s Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972), I found myself wondering why I hadn’t watched more giallo movies and really could not come up with a good answer.  So, with a modicum of research and a flurry of movie-queuing, I pulled up Mario Bava’s 1963 crime thriller The Girl Who Knew Too Much.

It’s a stylish affair, if a muddled one.  The convoluted plot is centered around a young woman in Rome on a holiday whose aunt suddenly takes ill and dies.  The young woman then goes out and gets mugged and then witnesses a murder, though a murder in which the evidence suddenly disappears.  While it’s Hitchcockian to a point, the story unravels into some decade-long serial killing thing, with twists out of left field.

Bava makes the thing look good though, actually really quite good.  A lot of shots are tres chic and very cool.

It’s probably quite a few evolutionary steps from Fulci’s 1972 film and I’m too much a newbie to the giallo film to draw any real significant conclusions.  Pretty cool if not a masterwork of cinema — that’s my two lira on the subject.

X-Men: Days of Future Past

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) movie poster

director Bryan Singer
viewed: 05/25/2014 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Who thought that this new X-Men movie, X-Men: Days of Future Past, would turn out to be this year’s first good superhero movie?  Not I, necessarily.  The trailers seemed a muddle of complexity and confusion, with a tonality of overwrought drama.  The return of director Bryan Singer, who helped to usher in this latest wave of superhero movies with his X-Men (2000) and X2 (2003), didn’t necessarily guarantee success.  After all, the previous X-Men movie, X-Men: First Class (2011) was a whole different creative team with director Matthew Vaughn at the helm.  So, really, who knew?

X-Men: Days of Future Past taps into one of the comic book’s most venerated story tropes, one that involves time travel and alternate realities.  Bryan Singer gets to re-connect his “old” X-Men (e.g., Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier and Ian McKellen as Magneto) crew with the newer X-Men actors of X-Men: First Class (e.g., James McAvoy as Professor X and Michael Fassbender as Magneto), all in one movie.  And it all gets to make sense, which is even odder.   And of course we’ve got the irreplaceable Hugh Jackman reprising his Wolverine role for like the seventh time.

The bottom line is the the story is complicated.  It has to do with a future in which giant killer robots with the ability to morph to destroy every mutant have taken over the world and track and kill every mutant or potential would-be progenitor of a mutant in the world.  With the last surviving mutants scrambling around to escape the Sentinels (as they are called), a last ditch hope is to project Wolverine back into his 1973 self to go and warn the earlier versions of everyone that the assassination of the head of the robot program needs to be stopped, the only hope to change the future for the better.  And the assassin?  Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique.

While there is nothing simple about trying to relate a thing about this movie (maybe why the trailer was doomed to a lack of clarity), the film is actually an engaging, action-packed ride, managing to keep the whole thing’s momentum in constant thrust and entertaining, largely, the whole way through.  Now, I’d read the comics from which this was adapted, so I had some familiarity with the concepts and characters.  The film doesn’t spend much time trying to teach you who is who.  I stopped reading the comics in the 1980’s so there are a number of characters with whom I too am unfamiliar.

But, you know, it’s actually pretty good.  X-Men: Days of Future Past is the first superhero movie this year that I’ve walked out actually feeling like I enjoyed it.  Which is a testament in a way itself because I’ve been beginning to wonder (as others have no doubt) whether the superhero movie has played itself out for the time being, despite being the template for years to come for movie studios.  There is a doubtless cynicism in some of the future films, though there are some things to which I am looking forward.

Now, I guess, I’m looking forward to the next X-Men film, too.

The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004)

The Life Aquatic (2004) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 05/23/2014

After watching Meatballs (1979) with Felix, I felt kind of inspired to watch a second Bill Murray movie, and suggested one of my favorites, The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou (2004), which I’ve already acknowledged as one of my all-time favorite films.  Such a category is a slippery slide, but it’s actually a kind of interesting contrast, Murray’s first starring role with a starring role 25 years later (and here it is even a decade out from it).

Felix has actually developed a liking for Wes Anderson films.  He had me take him to see his most recent, The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014).  I’m not entirely sure what he thought of this one, my personal favorite of Anderson’s.

There is an interesting trope that I picked up on more this time through the film, the film within a film, which is typically meta, but in the case of documentarian Steve Zissou, it’s about the artifice versus the reality.  Zissou’s documentaries are full of artifice, are questioned for their veracity, are shown to have been constructs of both reality and embellishment.  Anderson seems less interested in deconstructing “the documentary” as a form and more interested in the way that Zissou constructs his entire world, perception of himself.  He tries very openly to hijack the journalist (Cate Blanchett) who is there to write about him.  He’s absolutely intent on managing his image in every form.

I guess that is one of the things about the film that I like so well, the density of constructs within it.  There is plenty to see anew in any viewing.  It’s as ornate and lovingly developed as any of Anderson’s films.

I’d actually been kind of wanting to watch the movie with Felix for a while.  Like I said, I don’t know entirely yet what he thought of it.

Meatballs (1979)

Meatballs (1979) movie poster

director Ivan Reitman
viewed: 05/23/2014

I really liked Meatballs as a kid. The funny thing about it is that it’s a “clean” kind of comedy summer movie.  It’s the early Bill Murray movie.  He’d go on very quickly to make better movies, more classically funny, even with director Ivan Reitman a year or two later in Stripes (1981) and Ghostbusters (1984).  Between Meatballs and My Bodyguard (1980), I really liked kid actor Chris Makepeace.

Looking for movies to watch with the kids, I’d queued both of those up.  I hadn’t seen either one in eons.  But interestingly someone somewhere in my internet circle of information made some comment about “Rudy the rabbit” and the bell rang.  I thought we’d give it a shot.

It’s a summer camp movie, centrally focused on Bill Murray’s head counselor role of Tripper Harrison, the good-natured goof, who pranks and charms his way around camp, taking the shy Rudy under his wing, while rallying the camp against the opposite rich Camp Mohawk across the lake.

Murray carries the movie, which really is pretty average at best.  It’s funny to see him, all shaggy-haired, the romping silly.  It’s funny that he would go on to become one of the great American comic actors, or maybe it’s not so odd since he was always very funny.  I guess it’s just interesting how he evolved from there.

Felix was more or less amused.

Don’t Torture a Duckling (1972)

Don't Torture a Duckling (1972) movie poster

director Lucio Fulci
viewed: 05/18/2014

My birthday movie marathon of course had to have an ending.  There are only so many hours in a day.  Having just watched Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond (1981), my final film turned out to be another Fulci film, an earlier non-horror giallo film, titled in English Don’t Torture a Duckling.

My experience with the giallo film is oddly limited.  I was first exposed to giallo in the 1990’s while living next to Le Video, San Francisco’s great video shop, probably at its late heyday, sadly only a few years before it became nearly unnecessary with the advent of Netflix and eventual streaming platforms.  Back then, video (even prior to DVD really taking over) was the way that movies were proliferated.  And Le Video cornered the market on obscurity, with lots of “illegal” bootleg versions of films that just weren’t available anywhere.  And the staff was tuned in to the pre-internet research of obscurity and genres.  I never heard of “giallo” before Le Video.

Oddly enough, the one giallo that I saw from that time was Giulio Questi’s curiously titled Death Lays an Egg (1968).  I think that’s one of those funny things about giallo, the tendency to some really strange titles.  Maybe that’s actually what had me queue up Don’t Torture a Duckling.   Maybe if you wind up torturing a duckling, death will lay an egg.  I don’t know.

Don’t Torture a Duckling is the story of a serial child murderer wreaking havoc in a small village in rural Italy.  So, it’s not Fulci’s later zombie type horror, more perhaps of a horror/thriller, I suppose.  It’s also quite a different style of direction for Fulci, much more cohesive in its narrative and focus, with a much more pronounced sense of social critique in it.  It’s considered significant as the first of Fulci’s films to include some of his bloody gore effects, though it’s nothing like his later zombie gore.

It’s a really interesting film, actually, more accessible perhaps from a narrative stance and yet still very complex.

I really don’t have an explanation why I never got around to seeing more giallo films.  But when I did some post-film research, I realized that I’ve seen virtually none.  And yet it’s a genre that is right up my alley, with horror and “the fantastique” and all that Italian eroticism.  I’m really all about pulp when it comes down to it.  Maybe it’s just that Dario Argento never really “did it” for me when I was younger, even if I liked some of his films.  If he was the “master” of the giallo then maybe it wasn’t so interesting for me.

Whatever.  I’ve queued up about every notable giallo that I could find now.  So, my future will indeed have some serious tints of giallo in it.

The Beyond (1981)

The Beyond (1981) movie poster

director Lucio Fulci
viewed: 05/18/2014

So, I had given my birthday over to an impromptu movie marathon with a vague horror slant.   No major themes, but I felt the need for at least one film to feature some outre gore.  Who should one turn to in such situations?  Lucio Fulci fits the bill better than many that I can think of.

Herschell Gordon Lewis might be the original “Godfather of Gore” but Fulci is entitled to some aspect of that crown.  The last of his films that I’d watched, City of the Living Dead (1980) featured some of the most wonderfully gruesome of gore effects that I can even bring to mind.  The Beyond is considered the second film of his “Gates of Hell” (unofficial) trilogy, of which City of the Living Dead was the first.  So, yeah, it made sense.

Set in New Orleans, there is a hotel that was built on one of the “seven gates of hell” (location, location, location.)  Unsurprisingly, some bad stuff went down and the place fell into disrepair until many years later it is inherited by a young woman who decides to invest if fixing it up.  Of course, when you’re working on the foundations of a gate of hell, things tend to go gorily sideways pretty fast.

Like City of the Living Dead, the story is kind of hard to follow, possibly hard to parse.  It’s all steeped in atmosphere and gore.  Impaled eyeballs, acid eroding a body and the resultant putrescence, spiders ripping flesh, and a dog eviscerating its blind owner are a few of the many scenes that gouge the eyes and mind.  And in the end, there are a lot of what I guess are zombies pouring out of the gate of hell.

Interestingly, it seems that the disjointedness of the narrative was intentional rather than a result of sloppiness or post-production nonsense.  It’s hard to know reading the film through without that thought in mind.  No anti-logic logic seems the permeate the film, and yet it holds together in a strange, hard to describe way.  I guess that I am still constructing my sense of Lucio Fulci’s films.  I think that this is one that I perhaps saw long ago but couldn’t recall in any real concrete way.  Whether that was just me or whether that tends to say more about the film, I don’t know.

The Haunted Strangler (1957)

The Haunted Strangler (1957) movie poster

director Robert Day
viewed: 05/18/2014

At some point in the day, I came to realize that I was on a serious movie marathon.  My third slot went to an odd Boris Karloff movie.  It’s one of a series of British horror films that the Criterion Collection compiled.

The Haunted Strangler starts out with Karloff as a retiree of sorts who is looking to absolve a man who was hanged for a series of murders of young women in London 20 years prior.  It’s kind of a cold case files sort of thing but he is somewhat of a reformer who wants to show that a lot of people were convicted of crimes on dubious information with bad legal representation.

Then the film goes kinda kooky weird.  It turns out that Karloff was the killer all along in one of those kinds of twists that really doesn’t make any sense at all if you think about it.  It is kind of cool/creepy the way Karloff contorts his face when he transforms into the killer.  It’s actually a pretty athletic performance for a 70 year old actor.

Interesting for sure.  Not sure why Criterion selected it but it’s cool.

Tales of Terror (1962)

Tales of Terror (1962) movie poster

director Roger Corman
viewed: 05/18/2014

Roger Corman’s Tales of Terror may not be the highlight of his “Poe cycle” but it has its charms.  It’s got Vincent Price in every segment and Peter Lorre in the second and Basil Rathbone in the third.  The episodes are “Morella”,  a”The Black Cat” mash-up “The Cask of Amontillado”, and finally “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”.

The Peter Lorre one is amusing, played for comedy in contrast to the more serious and spooky other segments.  Lorre is quite good.  He is both the caricature of Lorre that showed up in cartoons and also much more than that, the real, talented actor that he was.  Quite the classic.

It has charms, certainly.  I think I recall finding it kind of dull as a kid.  And surely, that is understandable.  Nothing too exciting happens until the end, the last segment when Price comes back from the dead and then decomposes rapidly all over his tormentor Rathbone.

Burn Witch Burn (1962)

Night of the Eagle (1962) movie poster

director Sidney Hayers
viewed: 05/18/2014

If you’re a psychologist who disdains the supernatural, you better hope that your wife is not secretly a witch.  And if she is and then you find out and make her destroy all the totems that she’s acquired to protect you from evil and ensure ongoing luck and happiness, you better hope that you don’t have another witch colleague who has been long gunning for your downfall.  Things might get hairy.

This is a very nice sort of obscure British horror film, co-written by both Charles Beaumont and Richard Matheson, two of my favorite writers from The Twilight Zone.  I suppose that it’s no accident then that this film has the feel of a sustained Twilight Zone episode.

The film reminded me of a couple of cool movies, notably Jacques Tourneur’s Night of the Demon (1957) and Mark Robson’s Val Lewton production of  The Seventh Victim (1943).  Demons, witches, and devil worship, oh my!  Quite excellent stuff.