The Sci-Fi Boys (2006)

The Sci-Fi Boys (2006) movie poster

director Paul Davids
viewed: 11/27/2014

Director Paul Davids’ The Sci-Fi Boys is a paean to Forrest J. Ackerman and Ray Harryhausen and is endorsed and features many of the special effects and art design mavens who were deeply influenced by those two pioneers in their respective trailblazing.

Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland is one of those things that I sure wished I could have gotten my hands on more often as a kid.  I read the hell out of the two issues that I ever owned, pored over the images, received contact highs.  Ackerman is described as “The First Fanboy” but maybe it’s better to see him as the first sci-fi nerd.  Actually, his obsessive interest in the writers, directors, effects people and the monsters is what opened the eyes of his readers to aspects of film-making that other people turned a blind eye towards.  And his collection of memorabilia reminded me of Henri Langlois, just with a sci-fi bent and a cape.

As for Ray Harryhausen, I’ve written about him here many times before.  He was always a favorite of mine, but truth be told, I may well have learned his name from those two issues of Ackerman’s Famous Monsters that I had.  I also got to see him in person, receiving much of the same type of love an kudos heaped upon him here by many of the techie gurus who were also inspired by him.

We’ve got Peter Jackson, John Landis, Dennis Muren, Rick Baker, Stan Winston, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Frank Darabont.  But we’ve also got some more obscure guys like Donald F. Glut and Paul Davids himself.  Apparently, like Dennis Muren, whose own teen film Equinox (1970) was a testament to hands-on approaches of home-made movies that Harryhausen inspired, Davids and Glut made some pretty awesome Super 8 movies, though maybe they didn’t go on to win Academy Awards for their effects.

You know, this movie made me realize how much I wish I had access to a Super 8 camera when I was a kid.  We had only one cheap, very poor camera in our household and so I didn’t grow up with any of that technology anywhere in any real vicinity.  I can only imagine what I might have done with one in my hands.  I do indeed have a distinct memory from probably around 11-12 of wishing I had a camera to shoot movies.  It makes me appreciate all the more the technology and tools readily available in our present day and age.

I was inspired enough to try to get my kids to watch this movie or the other documentary about Ray Harryhausen.  I’ve even encouraged other friends to check it out.  Not so much because it’s so excellent or compelling in and of itself, but these are indeed guys who deserve the recognition and knowledge, not just of their first generation fans, but of fans generations to come.

Harryhausen died last year.  Bradbury the year before that.  Forrest J. Ackerman (“Uncle Forrey”) died in 2008.  Ackerman’s legacy will doubtlessly be the more obscure among the three men.  Fanzines were very 20th century, even though Famous Monsters has its web analogue now.  Bradbury and Harryhausen’s works in literature and movies are, on the other hand, much more for the ages.

Event Horizon (1997)

Event Horizon (1997) movie poster

director Paul W. S. Anderson
viewed: 11/26/2014

Paul W. S. Anderson’s Event Horizon starts off promisingly enough.  It stars Laurence Fishburne, Sam Neill, Kathleen Quinlan, Joely Richardson, and Sean Pertwee among others heading out beyond Neptune to investigate the return of a spacecraft, the Event Horizon, that had disappeared seven years earlier and suddenly reappeared.

Sam Neill is the scientist who designed the ship and its  (quoting Wikipedia writers here) “experimental gravity drive, which generates an artificial black hole to use the immense gravitational power to bridge two points in spacetime, greatly reducing travel time over astronomical distances.”  And here is the mystery.  The whole crew is dead.  The ship is just floating on its own.  Where has it been and what happened?

All up until this point is really pretty decent stuff.  Seriously.  The cast is good.  You might think that this was going to turn out to be a pretty darn good science fiction flick.

But no.  It turns out that Neill’s device sent the ship into another dimension.  Apparently the dimension of Hellraiser (1987) because everyone whose soul touches this distant space wants to slice themselves up and everyone else in some wild abandon to evil and darkness.  Oh and gouge out everybody’s eyeballs too.

The ship has developed its own form of intelligence and turns Neill evil.  It has the ability to tap into each individual’s mind and pull up their deepest-seated terrors, so it has some airs of Solaris (1972) going for it too.

Only none of this makes any sense at all and none of it jibes one whit.  At least in Hellraiser, the box and the world of sadomasochism works as it is sought and fulfilled in one’s own dark desires.  So plausible or not, at least this weirdness has some grounding.  The idea of a random universe of sadistic pain and masochism just seems like someone decided to mash-up these movies into a singular concept, without any real logic to hold onto.

The funny thing about Event Horizon is that I had seen it back in the day, probably on VHS or something.  I couldn’t remember much about it other than I didn’t remember thinking it was particularly good or anything.  But I’ve been revisiting the 1990’s in film, a decade that has dared to move over 20 years into the past, no longer just hanging out in “yesterday”.

Well, now you know.

Pitch Black (2000)

Pitch Black (2000) movie poster

director David Twohy
viewed: 11/26/2014

David Twohy’s Pitch Black may not have given the film world Vin Diesel all by itself, but it certainly offer the bald, deep-voiced action hero his first big break-through role.  It’s the first film featuring the character Riddick, more recently of The Chronicles of Riddick (2004) and Riddick (2013), both also written and directed by Twohy.

Twohy himself had been knocking on the door of success for a while with Timescape (1992) and the Charlie Sheen alien movie The Arrival (1996).  But it was Pitch Black, his movie about a space ship that crashes on a desert planet infested by darkness-loving bat-like/pterodactyl-like beasties that cemented things for himself and for Diesel.  While Diesel would go on to be known as well for the litany of The Fast and The Furious films, I could only watch one of those movies.

Pitch Black holds up pretty well.  I decided to revisit it because I wanted to see the new one and it’s been a long time between those movies.

His Riddick has had his sight altered to survive in prisons where there are no lights.  His silvery eyes can see in the dark, which makes him ideally adapted to the accidental landing place of the crashed starship.  He’s the only one who has half a chance to survive creatures that also have no normal vision on a planet that is just going into a serious solar eclipse.

Twohy shoots the digitally-effected monsters in muted light most of the time, which was a good strategy.  The designs of the creatures is kind of cool and the shadowy depths hide what is now a probably fairly dated computer animation.

I’ve often criticized digital effects as dating themselves significantly very quickly.  At least here, that issue isn’t quite as prominent.  The only real shortcoming that I’ll note is an occasional splatter of digital blood (another aesthetic peeve of mine), does lessen the impact of the action and suspense.

But it’s a good movie, a pretty cool movie.

House (1986)

House (1986) movie poster

director Steve Minor
viewed: 11/24/2014

I remember liking House back when I saw it in the 1980’s.  In fact, I recall that my friends and I liked it pretty well.  I recalled William Katt (of T.V.’s The Greatest American Hero (which I didn’t care for)) and George Wendt (eventually of Cheers).  I didn’t recall Richard Moll (of Night Court).  I also didn’t recall much in particular other than the film’s pretty awesome movie poster image of the disembodied hand ringing the doorbell like something Bernie Wrightson might have designed.  In fact, if pressed, I might have to admit that I almost had the film mixed up with Fright Night (1985).

House is a mixed bag of charms and short-comings.  It’s quite funny in parts, quite funny almost on the Evil Dead 2 (1987) style.  I’m thinking here of both disembodied hands (in this case clinging to the back of a toddler) or the flying killer toolshed items.  Either of those things could be right out of Raimi (if they didn’t inspire him conversely.)

But it’s also oddly uneven and oddly uncertain of its primary intent.  Is it comedy or kind of serious horror story?

The real reason that this question seems to persist is that William Katt plays a man tortured by his attempt to deal with his time in Vietnam.  He’s a horror writer who is tired of pumping out the thrillers and is instead trying to confront his personal demons of his experience in the battlefield.  His young son has also mysteriously been abducted, which has led to the break-up of his marriage.  So when his beloved aunt commits suicide in the house in which he was raised, he returns to the scene to work on his issues and his novel.

It turns out that all this is interrelated.  Which causes some serious plausibility questions.  Certainly, there is this subtext of his own sanity as he parses his survivor’s guilt and war trauma: maybe he is just projecting all the terror and horror features.

The designs of the monsters and creatures and some of the effects are also really pretty cool.  So when Richard Moll comes back as the giant corpse creature, it’s pretty good stuff.

I watched it with the kids who seemed to think it was also pretty good.  I don’t know. I can see what I liked about it back in the day, but I’m not sure that it stands up super-well entirely now.  It’s god it’s qualities, though.  George Wendt is very good.

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958)

Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958) movie poster

director Nathan H. Juran
viewed: 11/23/2014

The movie poster for Attack of the 50 Foot Woman was one of the most common images in throwback pop culture junk memorabilia back in the 1980’s.  Which is understandable:  it’s a great image.  And it’s an image that carries with it some very easily intuited feminism or female empowerment.  You could buy this on fridge magnets, postcards, posters, coffee mugs… Heck, you probably still can.

The movie itself comes from director Nathan H. Juran who also brought such 1950’s sci-fi/fantasy fare as The Deadly Mantis (1957), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958), and The Brain from Planet Arous (1958).

And no low-budget movie will actually live up to such an iconic movie poster (most of the time).  Because low budget it is, though still quite good in its way.

The female empowerment is certainly there for the intuiting if probably not there with the level of intentionality one might see in its more post-modern incarnations.  It’s the story of unhappy heiress Nancy Fowler Archer, played by Allison Hayes, a rich woman with a philandering husband.  Nancy runs afoul of an alien satellite (a bit orb) on the backroads and is doused with some form of radiation that eventually turns her into a giantess.  She’s not your quintessentially oppressed 1950’s housewife, but she’s had some bad turns by her man (Williams Hudson) dancing it up with his little squeeze (Yvette Vickers).  He’d like to have her put away in an institution (if not killed off).

The very cheap effects are held to a minimum and so it’s only in the film’s last 12 minutes that the 50 foot woman of the title actually “attacks”.  Interestingly, perhaps an intentional, though relative, play on the ending of the original King Kong (1933), the commentary after she is shot down is “She finally got Harry all to herself.”

It’s not just the iconic poster that has given this film such legs in continuing cultural consciousness (it was re-made in 1993 by Christopher Guest with Darryl Hannah playing the woman and has been re-made in reference a number of times in such films as Attack of the 60 Foot Centerfold (1995) and Attack of the 50 Foot Cheerleader (2011)).  Actually, the cultural references are legion.

Yes, at 50 feet in stature, the film has legs.  Long legs.  And while those legs may have camp in their soul (mixing my metaphors here rather freely), the subtext is there for the taking.

Lilya 4-ever (2002)

Lilya 4-ever (2002) movie poster

director Lukas Moodysson
viewed: 11/23/2014

Swedish director Lukas Moodysson has lingered on the peripheries of my film viewing for almost the entire duration of this film blog.  His 2000 film, Together, was one of the first films that got added to my Netflix queue (notable that I’ve stored things there for over a decade now — also that film is currently available on Netflix streaming).  His latest film, We Are the Best! is also available from Netflix streaming right now and has had a lot of buzz (it’s about young teenage girls who form a punk band).  In the interim, I managed to see only one of his movies, Show Me Love (1998) (though I still prefer its original Swedish title “Fucking Åmål”

His 2002 film, Lilya 4-ever has been another long-lasting film in my movie queue.  I can hardly recall what I had read about it at the time to get it there, but there it has stayed from many moons.  It was only after reading through some lists of dark, depressing films that I recently bumped it up to the top of my queue and finally have now seen it.

Loosely based on true events, Lilya 4-ever is the harsh tale of an Estonian teenager whose mother abandons her in the poor public housing world of her home town.  Befriended by one boy a couple years younger (whose abusive life is almost more pathetic than her own), she suffers worsening and worsening experiences at the uncaring world of her aunt, supposed friends, local thugs, and even her very selfish aunt.  She turns to prostitution and meets a seemingly nice young man who promises a job in Sweden, hope, a future, somewhere not where she’s been all her life.

Of course, he’s tricking her into sexual slavery.  Her little buddy commits suicide.

Though the story has an unrelenting quality of terrible, terrible things, Lilya (Oksana Akinshina) sustains her hopes until hopes are crushed to death.

Moodysson’s cinema is almost entirely focused on young teenage girls, and presumably they’re not all as dark as Lilya.  Show Me Love showed a hopeful burgeoning lesbian relationship and ended on an up note.  We Are the Best!, as the title would suggest, seems to be on the downright uplifting side.

He handles his young talent well.  Akinshina and Artyom Bogucharsky (her little friend Volodya) are excellent, young, naturalistic performers.

Both of Moodysson’s films I’ve seen have been good, I would say not great.  I would have a hard time putting my finger on what it was that was “missing”.  But I don’t know.  I’m still interested in both Together and We Are the Best! but I don’t hold them with the highest of expectations.

Big Hero 6 (2014)

Big Hero 6 (2014) movie poster

directors Don Hall, Chris Williams
viewed: 11/23/2014 at the Presidio Theater, SF, CA

Big Hero 6 is Disney’s latest very good digitally animated feature.  The run of success that the studio has been on since Tangled (2010) isn’t necessarily unprecedented, but given where the studio sat in relation to other animation studios, most namely Pixar, as the turn to digital animation became so dominant, it’s still very impressive and worth noting.

Disney and Pixar are of course at this time virtually the same animal.  Pixar’s John Lasseter sat in as producer on this Disney film, Disney having absorbed Pixar a few years back has caused me to wonder about the branding and prioritization at the studios in recent years.  Pixar has been stuck in a sequel-churn while Disney has had successes with digital princess films like Tangled and Frozen (2013) as well as more (dare I say it?) boy-oriented fare like Wreck-It Ralph (2012) and now Big Hero 6.  It’s kind of like you can see where the talent and dollars have been spent over the last few years…and it’s paid off.

It really makes me wonder about Pixar’s future.  They do have an original film due out next summer, Inside Out (2015), which at least “looks like” an original Pixar film, not just another knock-off sequel (of which I’ve also read they have a few due out (Finding Dory (2016), Toy Story 4 (2017), The Incredibles 2 (TBA), Cars 3 (TBA)).

Big Hero 6 is the best film of its kind since Pixar’s The Incredibles (2004).  It’s a more action-adventure style of animated feature.  Like The Incredibles, it’s also a superhero film, as well.  Though in this case, it’s adapted from a Marvel comic, an established set of characters and storylines (perhaps thusfar the ultimate of the massive Disney enterprise of its multitude of pop cultural holdings, fusing together into commercial products for us and our families).

It’s slick and entertaining.  Clara totally loved it.  Felix thought it was pretty good.  Me, at first I was really, really enjoying it, but by the end the magic had worn a little thin and clichéd.

The animation, particularly the character animation of Baymax, the big balloon-like robot, is terrific.  It’s all set in San Fransokyo (a San Francisco/Tokyo mash-up world of the story), which is also wonderfully rendered (I was actually struck how cool it is to watch a movie with a set so beautifully imagined that is essentially the city in which we are watching the film.  SF-local bias.)

It’s the story of robot-maker nerds and their passion for science and technological advancement.  Hiro (the movie’s “hero”) is the younger brother to Tadashi, who inspired his younger sibling to go to college, meet his peers, turn his passion for invention into a professional career with positive goals.  Only Tadashi gets killed early on (proof that this isn’t exactly the soft-and-fuzzy little kid-friendly Disney-type story but one with vaguely more adult themes and villains.  Tadashi has left Baymax, his non-threatening medical professional balloon ‘bot behind.  Eventually Jiro groups the college science nerds and Baymax into a superhero team to fight a Kabuki-masked villain.

The first part of the film is its best, especially the scenes with Baymax in various states of inflation, working his way around the 3D environment.  It’s the scenes with Baymax that have the real flair of beautifully-rendered digital animation that we’ve come to expect from Pixar.

In the end, the adventure and thrills are still a lot of fun.  At least there are no musical numbers that tweens will be singing for the next millennia to come til we all go insane and stab our ears out.

Rear Window (1954)

 

Rear Window (1954) movie poster

director Alfred Hitchcock
viewed: 11/22/2014

Is Rear Window Alfred Hitchcock’s best film?  I mean that both provocatively and honestly.

I first saw it in the 1980’s when several of Hitchcock’s films became available for the first time on home media: Rear WindowVertigo (1958), Rope (1948), The Trouble with Harry (1955), and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956).  I’d seen both Psycho (1960) and The Birds (1963), The Birds probably most early and most often, but the minor glut of films on release opened the door for me on one of the most famous and remarkable of film directors.

I won’t belabor analysis here.  It’s been done often and better than I could offer.  But I will say that the construction and control of the camera, of the viewer, of the whole cinematic operation (something I think is so masterfully Hitchcockian) is definitely as refined and sophisticated in this film as any film Hitchcock ever made.  The complex panopticon of a set, the vicarious obsession of the voyeur, the meticulous thrill, black comedy and even the outfits (Edith Head, of course!)

I shared the film with Felix and Clara.  We’ve watched a few Hitchcocks together.  We’ve even taken to watching Alfred Hitchcock Presents as well.  Oddly enough, or not, this was very likely their favorite to date.  And I have to agree at the moment.  Of all the films we’ve seen together, I too enjoyed this one as much as any other Hitchcock.

It’s funny that Jimmy Stewart plays such a jerk.  He’s downright nearly evil in Vertigo, but here he’s a guy who can’t even appreciate the glorious beauty and boundless good nature of Grace Kelly, who is gorgeous and charming in Rear Window.  That said, Thelma Ritter pretty much steals all the scenes in which she appears.  Do they make great character actors like her anymore?  Do they write roles for great character actors like her Stella here?

I said I won’t belabor the point so I’ll stop.  Rear Window is Hitchcock at his best.

Who Killed Walter Benjamin… (2005)

Who Killed Walter Benjamin (2005) movie poster

director David Mauas
viewed: 11/22/2014

In September of 1940, in the coastal village of Portbou, bordertown of France and Spain, the great writer/thinker/philosopher/cultural critic Walter Benjamin died.  He had been escaping from Paris, which had just been invaded by the Nazis, through Spain to Portugal to America.  A German Jew, radical thinker affiliated with the Left, Benjamin knew that the Nazis were after him.

The Spanish documentary Who Killed Walter Benjamin… investigates the case of his death, some 65 years later, visiting the pretty little village, whose people still bear the scars of WWII and the political divides that came into bearing at the time and would linger for years under the Franco regime.  It’s not clear what exactly director David Mausas hoped to find among the memories and erasures, but given his understanding of Benjamin and his thinking, perhaps the queries and their resonant echoes play out enough.

The facts are indeed befuddled.  It’s written into history that Benjamin committed suicide with morphine capsules upon reaching Portbou and finding his papers insufficient to carry on his journey to the US.  But much is obfuscated.  Much is doubtful.  And much else can easily be suggested or projected.  Mysteries abound.

What happened to his heavy briefcase that potentially contained his final and important manuscript?  If he committed suicide, why was he allowed to be buried in hallowed Catholic soil?  Was the Gestapo afoot?  Was he murdered?

The search for answers isn’t necessarily fruitful but the history, even with the lack of clarity of certainty utterly evident, is interesting.  The documentary’s interrogations are broad-based, from locals who recall many of the people of the time to friends of Benjamin’s or scholars.  Mausas sounds out the questions which shed light in many directions if not factual truths or knowable alterations to the “formal” history of the case.

Boss Nigger (1974)

Boss Nigger (1974) movie poster

director Jack Arnold
viewed: 11/21/2014

I don’t know if Jack Arnold and Fred Williamson’s Boss Nigger is the most confrontational of blacksploitation films, but it certainly has the most confrontational title.  Still so much so, the film’s DVD release has been simply retitled Boss.  And while Boss would still be an appropriate title for the film, given the story, it somewhat denudes it of that brash black-empowerment cachet that pushes the film’s edginess to the far more dramatic.

Star Williamson, who had already appeared in a number of blacksploitation movies including Black Caesar (1972) and Hell Up in Harlem (1973), actually wrote the script of this revisionist Western.  And in one of the more unusual pairings in Hollywood, legendary 1950’s science fiction director Jack Arnold is the man in the directorial seat.

Williamson plays “Boss”, the black-leather clad bounty hunter, who with his amiable sidekick Amos (D’Urville Martin), hunt down wanted white men and bring them to justice, dead or alive.  When they find themselves in the small town of San Miguel with a notice allowing them to become the town’s sheriff and deputy, they lay down their own set of “Black Laws,” dictating respectful behavior from all citizens.

It’s easy to see that the character of Boss was a major influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained (2012), from the notion of a black bounty hunter in the Old West down to Django’s stetson.

Though the film has a few radical black power statements, dramatically delivered by Williamson and Martin, it’s not a deeply radical affair at heart.  Arnold keeps the violence to a bloodless, almost television-style minimum (which is an interesting tack in post-Spaghetti Western 1970’s action fare), and maybe that is to the film’s ultimate detriment as a political statement.

It’s still quite the radical thing in and of itself, made during the height of the Black Power movement, the simple placement of a black hero in the (arguably) “whitest” of popular American film genres, force-feeding anti-racist behavior to the frontier town’s folk, and headed by the tough and manly “Boss Nigger” himself, tips the hand of deep-seated white fears and wrestles self-empowerment into the hands of the movie’s heroes.

Some have suggested that Williamson’s portrayal is at play with parody of blacksploitation roles he himself had already portrayed in a genre/style that even by 1975, only four years after Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, was already potentially played into hyper stereotype itself.  On this point, I cannot say.  I’m still pretty junior to the whole blaxploitation period and oeuvre.