Four Lions (2010)

Four Lions (2010) movie poster

director Chris Morris
viewed: 12/29/2015

Released in 2010 after many years of writing and planning, the UK film, Four Lions, tackles the touchy subject of jihad in the form of comedy and satire.

The film’s most compelling aspect is its daring to take on such a loaded and heavy subject head on and to do so weaponized only with humor.  That boldness alone has merit.  Would that the film had half the wit of its boldness, it could have been something like a Duck Soup (1933) for jihad.  Which would have been awesome.

But Chris Morris and team are not the Marx Brothers, so a classic this is not.  Funny at times, funny in moments, yes, there it works, in spits and starts.  The cast is pretty good.  I particularly liked Adheel Akhtar (who also stood out in the largely bad Pan (2015)) and Kayvan Novak, the two dumbest of the would be jihadis.

The idea is that there is a terrorist cell in Sheffield, England with Omar (Riz Ahmed) leading and Barry (Nigel Lindsay) an outspoken convert in cahoots, with two lesser lights in intellect following along.  When Novak and Ahmed hit Pakistan to join up, they are immediately drummed out of enlistment for pure idiocy and foolishness, heading back to the UK to plan a domestic attack.  It’s their mixture of Western upbringing and general dumbness that makes for the laughs.

Playing this in 2015, five years since its release, with the way that terrorism has expressed itself, the rise of the Islamic State and its various fanatical adherents, and general unease and uncertainty about everything in the Middle East, the film’s subject matter continues to be daring.  Watching goofball guys trying to make a terrorist video and failing still mixes unease with gags.  Some might find this inherently unfunny, that the subject is unapproachable as such.  I’d say that is where this film retains its worth and value.

Made in collaboration with British Muslims, the perspective comes from the inside of Islamic life, or is meant to at least, rather than a satire from the outside.  Whether this is successful or not, I’m not sure that I’m qualified to say.  But I do think that humor as a weapon for deconstructing, understanding, and breaking down things is a healthy and valid course.

I wish the movie was a little better.  It’s not bad, but it’s also not nearly as comic as it could be, something I attribute to the writing and development.  A noble effort if not entirely successful.

God Told Me To (1976)

God Told Me To (1976) movie poster

director Larry Cohen
viewed: 12/28/2015

A guy climbs up on a watertower in central Manhattan and starts shooting people with a rifle.  When asked why he did it, her replies, “God told me to.”  A man enters a grocery market and starts stabbing people.  On his deathbed, asked why, he says, “God told me to.”  A cop during the St. Patrick Day’s parade suddenly opens fire on the crowd.  When the cop (Andy Kaufman in his first cinematic role) is subdued, he simply states “God told me to.”

It’s mid-1970’s New York and there is a Christ-like young man giving people the word to unleash violence on friends, family, the general public, and only one cop (Tony Lo Bianco of The Honeymoon Killers (1969)) seems tuned into the methodology to the madness and seeks the slippery, glowing hermaphrodite behind all this.  Only, there’s more to this Manson-esque madness than drugs and hippies and modern mass shooting madness.  There are alien abductions and impregnated women, virgin births, and some form of “God”.

This is straight out of the fertile imagination of writer/director Larry Cohen in his 1970’s heyday.  Richard Harland Smith of moviemorlocks.com compares Cohen to Sam Fuller, and maybe that is an apt perspective.  God Told Me To ran as part of a TCM Underground Larry Cohen double feature alongside his great 1975 flick It’s Alive.

I’ve been meaning to re-watch God Told Me To for some while.  Oddly, I’d remembered it with a little more hippie drug culture and forgotten the whole alien angle.

Cohen commands a cast of great, low-key character actors and shoots on the mean streets of New York in its pre-Giuliani’ed glory.  Of course, this film depicts the more crowded streets of Manhattan, ones that later Q – The Winged Serpent (1982) would come to haunt and besiege.

It’s not just unique, it’s quite great too.

Revolt of the Zombies (1936)

Revolt of the Zombies (1936) movie poster

director Victor Halperin
viewed: 12/27/2015

Sequel to his much better-known White Zombie (1932), Victor Halperin’s 1936 horror film transplants the action from Haiti to Cambodia(!) where another ancient form of drugs and mind control empowers the evil-leaning to the possibility of commanding an army of deathless beings!  Halperin might not have been much of a visionary, but he certainly crafted here an idea that might inspire the Nazis in later years (or Nazi conspiracy theorists in much later years).

Though I kinda love the movie poster, it’s really a giant step down from the original, losing just about any element of quality that the 1932 film had.  The Angkor Wat background setting is pretty interesting (can you think of any other zombie films set in 1930’s Cambodia?), it’s also typically uninformed and rear-projected.

But if White Zombie is the first all-time zombie movie, Revolt of the Zombies, no matter how insignificant and uninspired, no matter how little zombie it really contains, is indeed the 2nd all-time zombie film.  So, for the Halperin boys, they got there first and second!

Victor and Edgar Halperin seem kind of interesting.  From White ZombieSupernatural (1933), Revolt of the Zombies, to Torture Ship (1939), they made a few horror and other genre flicks on Poverty Row before quitting the game in the 1940’s.

White Zombie (1932)

White Zombie (1932) movie poster

director Victor Halperin
viewed: 12/27/2015

White Zombie, the original, very first “zombie” movie was adapted from the 1929 novel The Magic Island by William Seabrook, which popularized and introduced the idea of the voodoo of the West Indies, their forebears in African culture, and the idea of reanimated corpses under the sway of some form of the occult.  Or, even, as here, seemingly reanimated  corpses, people under drugged and hypnotized command.

A product of the pre-code era, it’s not especially racy.  Produced independently by brothers Victor and Edgar Halperin, the film stars Béla Lugosi right off the heels of his biggest hit, Dracula (1931).  Here he is ‘Murder’ Legendre, who has enslaved his white enemies as zombie henchmen and runs his plantation with black zombie slaves.  When asked for help with the lovely Madeline (Madge Bellamy) by an unscrupulous plantation owner (Robert Frazer), he zombifies Madeline and plans further nefarious schemes.

It’s the eyes, Lugosi’s, that haunt the film, zoomed-in on, lit eerily, topped by an interesting mono-brow, they command wordlessly.  They even command the movie poster.

I’d seen this before and hadn’t loved it, but this time through found it surprisingly well-photographed.  The zombies themselves, including the luminous Bellamy, are evocative, with their freakish to vacant expressions, like images from a wax museum.  Not far removed from the Silent Era, the film is at its best in scenes enacted through images and movement, without the sound.  Lugosi is vibrant if stilted, not yet in caricature or self-parody (though the caricature comment might be arguable.)

Thumbelina (1994)

Thumbelina (1994) movie poster

directors Don Bluth, Gary Goldman
viewed: 12/26/2015

There are doubtlessly worse animated feature films than 1994’s Thumbelina, but not probably worse animated feature films that I will sit through with my kids.  I actually had both of them asking me why we watched it in the end.  My answer was simple: Don Bluth.

Don Bluth may only have one truly great animated feature to his name, 1982’s wonderful The Secret of NIMH, but on more recent discovery, his 1989 film All Dogs Go to Heaven was pretty good.  With moderately fond memories of Anastasia (1997), I thought it was worth giving his catalog a run.

It seems though that Don Bluth jumped Disney’s ship in the late 1970’s-early 1980’s when it was indeed sinking in malaise and in doing so made a better Disney-style traditional cel animated feature in The Secret of NIMH than Disney had made in decades.  While the quality of his films eclipsed Disney for most of the 1980’s, Disney righted their ship and apparently, by the 1990’s the quality of Bluth’s output was on the wane.

It’s an interesting time in American animation.  A time when traditional cel animation looked nearly dead (and potentially all animation), but actually just on the cusp of computer animation taking over the animation universe, an explosion of money, success, studios, and growth which has resulted in the massively changed landscape of animation in the 20 years hence.  Interesting because at the time it looked merely bleak.

Thumbelina was to be a 3 picture deal with Barry Manilow, who provided the musics.  Followed by The Pebble and the Penguin (1995) (remember that one?  I don’t), it was followed by the collapse of the Sullivan Bluth Studios and eventual move to Fox Animation Studios.

The voice cast includes Carol Channing and Charo, the latter as a Charo-inspired toad.  Channing voices Ms. Fieldmouse, who I found actually one of the more interesting characters, but is most notorious for singing, “Marry the Mole,” a Razzie-winning Worst Original Song.

While the merits of the song “Marry the Mole” are worth questioning, the theme of the song and the theme of the movie are really the site of utter lameness.  Thumbelina, based as she is on the Hans Christian Anderson original, is a tiny girl with virtually no power, swept away by toads, beetles, a mole and a fieldmouse, with no sense of self other than who she should marry (obviously the prince of the fairies, right?).  The movie is essentially plot-less in her attempts to return home and marry the prince while the world besets her disempowerment.   Only at the end does she assert herself and to that end winds up marrying the prince.

Weak sauce, before perhaps, such a term had been coined.

The Night of the Hunter (1955)

The Night of the Hunter (1955) movie poster

director Charles Laughton
viewed: 12/24/2015

Unheralded and under-appreciated upon its initial release, The Night of the Hunter has still long been recognized and considered among the great noir films but also among the greatest films of all time.  Most everyone knows that it was Charles Laughton’s only feature film as director, one he possibly didn’t live to see acknowledged for its brilliance.  And most everyone also recognizes Robert Mitchum’s Reverand Harry Powell as one of film’s most terrifying villains, with his looming presence, lowing voice booming out the hymn “leaning, leaning…leaning on the everlasting arms,” and hands tattooed with “LOVE” and “HATE”.

Some may know that the film was adapted from a novel of the same name by Davis Grubb.  If you delve into the “extras” on the Criterion DVD, about the film’s production, you would learn that Laughton took the novel pretty straight-forwardly from Grubb’s original, and interestingly, Grubb, who had trained as an artist, provided some striking sketches for the film scenes, nearly 100 of them, inspiring some of the movie’s most indelible images.

Davis Grubb illustration for The Night of the Hunter
Davis Grubb illustration for The Night of the Hunter

(Side note, I just finished reading the 1953 novel and it’s very good.)

But probably much, much less known is that Grubb’s Preacher was inspired by a real life serial killer, a lonely hearts killer named Harry Powers who murdered young widows and their children in West Virginia.  Grubb was born and raised in Moundsville, WV and was about 11 at the time of Powers’s notorious trial and hanging, which was nearly brought about by lynch mobs during his trial.

The book and the film center the perspective from the perspective of 10 year old John Harper, played in the film by the terrific Billy Chapin.  Grubb transformed a real world monster into a nightmare figure, a killer as perceived by a child, a theme Laughton and his art director Hilyard M. Brown and cinematographer Stanley Cortez extend through their vision and mise en scène.  Laughton envisioned the story as a fairy tale of sorts, using the wonderful Lillian Gish as the counterbalance of good, also an emblem of his inspiration from the films of the Silent Era, in particular the works of D.W. Griffith, as well as those of Expressionist Cinema.

I think it’s interesting that in the film Powell is cited as having murdered nearly 20 women, to embellish his evil and his crimes, an exaggeration that undercuts the numbers of the actual Harry Powers, but also shuts an eye to the gruesomeness of his true crimes.

Powers hasn’t necessarily been lost to history, but he’s a lesser known figure in the annals of American criminals at this point and time, an interesting disposition for the inspiration for one of cinema’s greatest villains.

The film is tremendous, only improves upon re-watching, certainly resonant after having read Grubb’s brilliant novel.  An amazing, amazing film.

Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971)

Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971) movie poster

directors Gualtiero Jacopetti, Franco Prosperi
viewed: 12/23/2015

The ultimate audacious exploitation film is an utter mind-fuck of a movie.  It’s outrageous and shocking, jam-packed with scenes and images that sear into your brain, a near nonstop barrage of titillation and terror, shock and awe.

Never has there been a film that works so hard to be anti-racist that totally subverts itself into exploitation insanity.  It seems clear that Gualtiero Jacopetti and Franco Prosperi are trying to make a radical anti-racist film, invoking Eldridge Cleaver and LeRoi Jones and the black power movement, while delving into a bizarre pure Mondo attempt to depict a modern day film crew back in the days of slavery, highlighting cruelties and brutality, animalization of blacks by evil naive whites.

The Italian production, filmed in Haiti, features a cast of hundreds in what seems like very exploitative participation.  It’s almost impossible to know from simply watching the film exactly what was going on on the sets but Jacopetti and Prosperi strive for epic disgust and outrage, showing things as they were at the worst in America’s past.  Certainly a lot of their claims and images have truth in historical fact, but it’s such a whacked out and insane approach, shoving things endlessly in the audiences’ faces, it’s hard to analyze each thing on its own and it’s also certainly questionable to sort facts from possible embellishments.

Goodbye Uncle Tom well earns its reputation as one of the most offensive and shocking of all exploitation films.  It’s really hard to affix a star rating to the film.  Its audacity and concept is either utterly bankrupt or alternatively pure genius.  Provocation is baked deeply into the whole concept and it’s executed to the Nth degree.  It’s agitprop at its most effective.  It’s hard to imagine anyone being able to watch this film with a mild response.

But its notoriety isn’t that its message is clearly understood.  Upon release and no doubt today, a lot of people would find this film shocking and offensive and totally racist.  As clear as it was to me that Jacopetti and Prosperi invoke black power and beat the drum of outrage about the true horrors of the past, a just invocation, highlighting the evils of racism, the shock and exploitation totally upends their intention.  The grotesqueries are so lurid that they wind up appearing as racist themselves as the things they mean to depict.

This runs throughout the entirety of the film, a constant through the full 136 minutes.  The atrocity exhibition is nonstop bananas.   Seriously, as bizarre and outrageous as anything I’ve ever seen.

Stop Making Sense (1984)

Stop Making Sense (1984) movie poster

director Jonathan Demme
viewed: 12/21/2015

Ever seen The Talking Heads’ Stop Making Sense?  I saw it when it came out and then the many videos of it that aired with great regularity on MTV back when MTV was music videos.

I’d been wanting to watch it again since it appeared on Fandor a couple months ago.  I thought it was something my son, a 14 year old gaining interest in music, might be interested in.

The concert film is an odd genre.  It’s hard not to think that Jonathan Demme’s work here though is a very good version of it.  The Talking Heads in 1984 were on their brink of major stardom and the stage show that David Byrne and team conceived is a clever one.

The film opens with Byrne walking on stage with a boom box and an acoustic guitar, singing “Psycho Killer” on his lonesome.  He’s then joined by Tina Weymouth on bass for “Heaven”.  Each song brings another element on stage, drummer Chris Frantz and then guitarist Jerry Harrison, additional session musicians and back-up singers, eventually erasing the spartan stage into blackness and then video projections.  And eventually the iconic giant suit that Byrne dons for “Girlfriend is Better”.

Byrne really puts on a show.  And really does a lot of dancing with his trademark weirdness.

These days, I find that I liked most of the songs, if not all of them.  I don’t LOVE the Talking Heads, but I do like them.  And the movie, it’s pretty well-done.  My son liked it okay.

Female (1933)

Female (1933) movie poster

director Michael Curtiz
viewed: 12/20/2015

DVD’s may never go down in history as some ideal form of movie-watching, but I think the format had/has its merits.  Presently, there is, albeit perhaps from some very specific corners, a fond fetishizing of VHS, but DVD’s which usurped the market before being pushed out by Blu-Ray and eventually all streaming markets, offered a format that erred toward letterboxing, added room for commentary tracks or mini-documentary films to supplement features, or even offered multiple films on a disc, opportunities for double features, occasionally with an interesting contrast.  I don’t collect DVD’s but I stick up for them on these accounts.

The case in this particular point is 1933’s Female, credited to director Michael Curtiz but apparently also to some degree directed by  William Dieterle and William Wellman.  It’s the B-side, if you will (not that you have to flip the disc for it), of the DVD of Three on a Match (1932), a double feature of Warner Bros. pre-code entertainments.

Female stars Ruth Chatterton as, yes, a female industrialist, a liberated, powerful, intelligent woman, who lives, loves, and excels “like a man.”  It’s a comedy of sexual role reversal, almost quite feminist.  Actually, if it ended about 10 minutes sooner, or with a different twist, it could have been quite feminist.  Instead, the film turns on Chatterton finally landing the one man she couldn’t have and handing over the reins to the man so that she can make babies and be happy.  What could have been feminist gets subverted quite harshly back to good ol’ patriarchal norms.

At only 60 minutes, it’s entertaining and interesting and hard to argue with, if more of an odd footnote and piece of cultural history.

Three on a Match (1932)

Three on a Match (1932) movie poster

director Mervyn LeRoy
viewed: 12/20/2015

Three on a Match packs a lot of story into its brisk 63 minutes.  It spans over a decade in the lives of three young women from schoolgirl shenanigans down three separate paths their lives take til they meet again.  From Prohibition, women’s suffrage, shortened skirts, montages capture aspects of popular culture from the 1920’s into the Great Depression and the early 1930’s.  And that’s virtually all in the first 5 minutes.

The film stars Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and Bette Davis, the “three on a match” and features Virginia Davis, Warren William, Lyle Talbot, and about the youngest-looking Humphrey Bogart you are apt to see.  Spoiler alert, Blondell, the one who ended up in “reform school” turns out to be the one with the heart of gold and the sensible head, and Dvorak, the one who went to a posh boarding school and married a rich lawyer is the one brought down by drugs and drink.  Davis gets the least action, having gone to business school and gotten a job and not one of the more juicier roles in the picture.

You could unpack this dense little movie a good deal, I imagine.  In one of the film’s earliest points of interest, a sign points out that the “bad luck” of lighting “three on a match” didn’t come from combat drawing fire but from an American match manufacturer who wanted to sell more matches.  While it’s not the most lurid of pre-code movies, it has its moments, particularly perhaps in its somewhat nonjudgmental tone toward the morally and socially “fallen.”

Mervyn LeRoy made a number of great pre-code Hollywood films like Little Caesar (1931), I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932), and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933), to name a few.  And Three on a Match is an apt addition to that list, if perhaps not quite so much a stand-out.