The Witch (2015)

The Witch (2015) movie poster

director Robert Eggers
viewed: 02/27/2016 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Movie “buzz” comes and goes, and of late, that buzz has been upon Robert Eggers’s debut feature, The Witch, which won a directing award at 2015 Sundance.  Once buzz dies down and films linger on, time usually offers the best perspective on the gems of the age.  I’m willing to think that The Witch will hold up reasonably well.

If you ever thought that the Puritans who settled in America were a fun-loving gang, well, you probably don’t understand history too well.  This small family out of England finds themselves banished from their own New England community and forced to forge ahead in the New World alone at the side of an ominous woods.  They are as agro religious as anyone and getting along seemingly well until a series of disasters fall upon them starting with the mysterious daylight abduction of the infant.

Giving away too much of the story feels entirely wrong-minded.  It’s a curious twisted route through agrarian homesteading isolation and a family tight but fraught in their religious fervor, fears, and beliefs.  The question of where the film is going drags you on throughout.

Central is Anya Taylor-Joy as Thomasin, a luminous beauty even in the chaste clothing of her Puritan times.  In fact, I thought the whole cast was strong, even down to the little children, the demonic rabbit, and Black Phillip, the goat.

This is no cheapy horror thriller, featuring nary a jump-scare in the whole.  But as it hews to a perhaps deeper and richer dramatic milieu, I found myself pondering the film’s deeper meanings.  Is it in a way a coming of age story for Thomasin?  A comment on American deeply Christian values and psychosis of ideology?  At the end of the day, as well-crafted, cast, and filmed as it was, I felt something lacking in its more significant respects.  Not at all bad, but not elevating itself above and beyond.

I saw it with my 11 year old daughter, who likes horror films.  Though she clutched my hand tightly throughout, she said that she wasn’t overly impressed by the film.  I wonder if it will wear well with her in years to come.

Devil’s Playground (2002)

Devil's Playground (2002) movie poster

director  Lucy Walker
viewed: 02/25/2016

Unless you live near an Amish community, you probably get your information about them from the media.  Popular cultural depictions of the Amish seem to have started with Peter Weir’s 1985 film Witness.  And the strange fascination with them, largely as points of humor or religious outre-ness, is not uncommon.

Lucy Walker’s 2002 documentary deals with the point that Amish kids hit at age 16 called rumspringa, in which young people are allowed to explore the world outside, usually over a time of a couple of years, before returning to their Amish villages and becoming baptized in their faith and lifelong commitment.

Unsurprisingly, kids brought up in such a highly restrictive society tend to go particularly crazy when allowed to party, have sex, smoke, drive, wear normal clothes, have technology, all the trappings of the modern world that the Amish shun.  It’s an interesting contrast, that a culture that is so restrictive has this open release option for young people (and that according to the documentary’s statistics that 90% return to the fold.)  In some ways, it’s more open-minded than other sects and denominations that are not so outwardly conservative.

The film gives a reasonable amount of information but there are so many questions.  The Amish of, say, Witness, had none of the technology that even the regular farmers and workers seem to have.  It’s hardly as much deprivation as some depictions would seem to show.  Do inroads already exist that allow for technologies like cell phones and cars in certain circumstances?

The Amish, to me, seem somewhat arbitrary in their cut-off with modern machinery.  It seems to be more of a historical circumstance than a logical one or a specifically indoctrinated one.  It must be said that the elders interviewed in the film don’t make particularly compelling arguments on these topics.  To me, it shares a kinship with certain interpretations of Islam or Judaism, ones whose readings, close as they might be, want to ground the religion in the time and culture of its origin.

What struck me in watching Devil’s Playground was how odd and culturally traumatizing this cultural deprivation is for the teens.  Taken out of their circumstances they are drawn powerfully to the pop culture shared by kids their own age in time, yearn for things that on the outside would be considered “normal”.  What is the argument to perpetuate their shunning of modernity when it is doubtlessly encroaching upon them more and more all the time?  Is the Amish world in more crisis now than ever before?

Who knows?  The film doesn’t really explore that and is now 15 years old.  It’s still an interesting peek into a curious culture.  And probably a tad more legit than Amish Mafia.

Castle Freak (1995)

Castle Freak (1995) DVD cover

director Stuart Gordon
viewed: 02/17/2016

Stuart Gordon has had an interesting career in film, known mostly for his many adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft.  In fact, he might have more Lovecraft on his cinematic résumé than any other director out there.

As good as Re-Animator (1985) and From Beyond (1986) are, his 1995 direct-to-video adaptation of Lovecraft’s “The Outsider” is a lesser thing.  It’s got Jeffrey Combs (Re-Animator himself) and Barbara Crampton (from both Re-Animator and From Beyond), but if you’re old enough to remember “direct-to-video”, you know that that term is not an emblem of quality typically.

It’s a story of bad parenting gone amok, as Combs and Crampton arrive at the Italian castle with their daughter Rebecca (Jessica Dollarhide), who was blinded in a car accident that also killed her brother, the result of drunken driving on Combs’s part.  But worse than that the son of the castle’s long-dead duchess still lives down in its depths and his long-lived abuse has left him the resident “freak” of the title.  He likes to get freaky (despite having lost his penis somewhere along the way) and kill and mutilate.

While it’s not nearly as good or fun as Gordon’s earlier Lovecraft movies, Castle Freak has its merits and rewards.  1995 was a somewhat late date for practical effects horror films, so it’s worth appreciating its non-CGi-ness, direct-to-video or whatever.

Monstrosity (1963)

Monstrosity (1963) movie poster

director Joseph V. Mascelli, Jack Pollexfen
viewed:  02/17/2016

You have to like a movie poster that names the animal actor, in this case “Xeres the cat”.

I am perpetually intrigued when researching a film (after having seen it) and finding movie connections between one odd cult figure and another.  Now director Joseph V. Mascelli may have only one film to his directorial credit but he turns out to have played cinematographer for two Dennis Ray Steckler flicks The Thrill Killers (1964) and The Incredibly Strange Creatures Who Stopped Living and Became Mixed-Up Zombies!!?
(1962) as well as on Arch Hall, Sr.’s Wild Guitar (1962).  I had noted before the Steckler/Arch Hall connection so maybe that isn’t so strange.

But more credit might be due Jack Pollexfen, producer, writer, and apparently co-director here as well.  He’s got a lot of writing and producing credits including Indestructible Man (1956) and Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), but also one of my favorite weird little discoveries of recent years, Edgar Ulmer’s The Man from Planet X (1951).  I’m not playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon here but the Ulmer to Steckler linkages are odd and vaguely cool.

So what have we got here in Monstrosity (a.k.a. The Atomic Brain)?  A cheap mad doctor brain transplant picture in which an old grouse of a lady seeks to have her brain plopped into the head of a young pretty thing.  She imports three gals from abroad, one with the most amazingly awful English accent that sounds more Southern than Cockney, I suppose as spares in failed experiments.

The doctor she has in tow plants a dog’s brain in a man’s body and winds up with…?  A monstrosity.  When he puts his beloved cat’s brain in the Mexican woman’s head, he gets a somewhat docile result unless cornered.  With a track record like that, what could go wrong?

Like a lot of movies picked up by MST3K, it’s a truly bad film.  But it’s also an enjoyably bad film, with seemingly incessant narration, some super-goofy science, and a strangely flippant musical accompaniment.

Ah, the public domain, a particularly wonderful thing.

 

 

The Cockettes (2002)

Hibiscus from The Cockettes (2002)

directors Bill Weber and David Weissman
viewed: 02/15/2016

Released in 2002, Bill Weber and David Weissman’s documentary, The Cockettes shines a light on one of San Francisco’s most wonderfully “out there” trippy, hippie freakshows, the all-too-brief troupe of performers.  I’d read about this film when it came out and really don’t know why it took me so long to get around to watching it.  Our present day city is rapidly losing the aspect of the city’s identity that the Cockettes seemed to embody, even as a unique extreme of sorts.

Founded by Hibiscus (a.k.a. George Harris), the particular brand of gay acid hippie drag show ensemble started as a lark at the Palace Theater in North Beach and grew into the talk of the town, anything goes, crazytown fun.   An emblem of the times and yet also one far out and haphazard version of hippiedom.  John Waters and Divine were there and most notable organic member Sylvester was a key player as well.

The film captures surviving members recollecting the communes, the drugs, and the free love openness and artsy lavishness of the troupe’s brief heyday.  As well as their somewhat disastrous venture to New York, where the less than professional impromptu nuttiness of the Left Coast was largely unappreciated.  And would sow the seeds of the group’s demise.

I think if I’d seen this film in 2002, it would have been as interesting, sure.  The glimpse back at that point would have been 30 years into the past, a time much-heralded for the Haight-Ashbury scene and the Summer of Love here.  And it still would have been a breath of fresh freakshow air compared to the hippies and the deadheads.  But watching it in 2016, with the city changing under the weight of the cost of living be the deeply encroaching tech industry, this glimpse seems deeper into the past, not because of the passage of time but because of the disappearance of the types of characters and personalities and an affordable place for them to come and do their things.

Deadpool (2016)

Deadpool (2016) movie poster

director Tim Miller
viewed: 02/15/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Deadpool is a breath of fresh R-rated air in highly corporate product genre of superhero movies.  The marketplace is awash in superheroes and looks to stay awash from years to come, but these are products built for the family-friendly PG-13 audience, increasingly mainstream culturally.  And while this is a product of a big studio (Fox) from a comic from a big publisher (Marvel), it is decidedly unlike the norm.

I don’t have a pre-existing relationship with Deadpool, the character.  He was invented after I’d stopped reading superhero comics.  So I can’t comment on what the film gets right or wrong.  How perfect or imperfect Ryan Reynolds is as the man-made mutant mercenary.

It’s not that Ryan Reynolds was born to play the role, more that this is the role that Ryan Reynolds adopted, midwifed and birthed into existence.  He, and the writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick, as well as director Tim Miller, put in a lot of effort to get this movie made in this particular way.  And it seems to be a hit with the fanbase.  What that will mean for the genre?  Who knows.  At least a sequel.

Crass and violent, Deadpool earns its R-rating.  Funny and pretty entertaining, it earns some praise as well.  I don’t know if it’s quite as witty as it thinks it is.  Is having a character make a note of “breaking the fourth wall” really innovative or clever?  Isn’t the “fourth wall” really a theater thing and less a movie thing?  More aptly, the film is filled with geek-love easter eggs.

I don’t think I’d be the only person to suggest that Brianna Hildebrand who plays Negasonic Teenage Warhead almost stole the show despite her relatively small role.

The superhero movie is certainly in danger of becoming a victim of its own success at the moment.  The glut of product is really just entering its onslaught phase.  And as successfully as Marvel/Disney have crafted the Marvel Cinematic Universe and DC and Warner Brothers are desperately trying to construct their own, we’re going to be drowning in it soon.  And how soon it plays itself out is anybody’s guess.  More and more it seems like “product” rather than actual entertainment.

So Deadpool‘s success… it will be interesting to see if it actually shakes anything up.

The Keeping Room (2014)

The Keeping Room (2014) movie poster

director Daniel Barber
viewed: 02/14/2016

The further that we move in time from the period of the Western, the less ubiquitous it becomes culturally and the more significant it becomes as a form of commentary and understanding of history.  This is the nature of the Revisionist Western, telling stories that the traditional genre utterly omitted, giving voice and agency to peoples reduced to stereotypes or bit roles in the genre’s heyday, and shedding light on history in new ways.

The Keeping Room is a thriller, set at the end of America’s Civil War.  Three women, two sisters (Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld) and their slave (Muna Otaru), are left at their homestead as men have headed off for war.  They run afoul of two rogue soldiers (Sam Worthington and Kyle Soller) who have taken the annihilation of war to their psyches and rape and murder and pillage like demons unleashed on the land.

I really wanted this movie to be better than it is.  You could probably say that about any number of movies, sure.  But this one has a deep kernel of real interest deep down in it, the idea is really good.  But it just isn’t that good a movie.

The is the second new generally praised Western of late (Slow West (2015) being the other) that I found disappointing but hard to pinpoint on what was wrong with the movie.  The Keeping Room isn’t as bad as Slow West.  But it nagged at me throughout, something just sort of “off”.  I don’t know.  That’s all I got.

 

The Giant Behemoth (1959)

The Giant Behemoth (1959) movie poster

directors Eugène Lourié, Douglas Hickox
viewed: 02/13/2016

Director Eugène Lourié had an interesting career.  He made three of what are retroactively considered kaiju films, two of which were stop-moiton, the last of which was a guy in a suit monster:  The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), The Giant Behemoth, and  Gorgo (1961).  He also made the obscure but interesting The Colossus of New York (1958).  He also worked as art director on a multitude of films and television, notably Charlie Chaplin’s Limelight (1952) as well as Sam Fuller’s Shock Corridor (1963) and The Naked Kiss (1964).  Co-director Douglas Hickox would go on to make Theatre of Blood (1973) and Zulu Dawn (1979).

The Giant Behemoth (a.k.a., Behemoth, the Sea Monster) is a stop-motion creature feature, a weak step-child of Gojira (1954), also a dinosaur resurrected by nuclear radiation tests who breathes some atomic fire.  In The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Lourié worked with Ray Harryhausen.  Here, attempting to employ Willis O’Brien, he wound up with O’Brien’s assistant Pete Peterson, working with a much scrimpier-seeming budget.

The creature is first seeing vaguely through binoculars, and then appears in shots that don’t seem animated.  It’s not til the film’s final third that the stop-motion creature gets going and the fun kicks in and London gets trashed.

Of all of the 1950’s stop-motion creature features, this might be one of the cheapest, but it has its points.  Of course, I’m a total pushover for such things.

A Fish Called Wanda (1988)

 

A Fish Called Wanda (1988) movie poster

directors Charles Crichton, John Cleese
viewed: 02/12/2016

One of the late 1980’s well-regarded comedies, A Fish Called Wanda.  How does it hold up?

Pretty well.

From a script by John Cleese, it’s a heist caper comedy featuring an Oscar-winning, incredibly funny and perverse Kevin Kline at his arguable best.  He’s the despicable Otto, an angry, jealous, cruel, and ruthlessly funny strongman of a group that pulls a jewelry heist in London and then quickly turns on one another, to see who can out-scam whom.  Jamie Lee Curtis is the smart and sexy moll, Wanda, one of her two very good comedic roles (the other being in Trading Places (1983)).  And you’ve got Michael Palin playing K-K-K-Ken, the stuttering killer who is soft on animals.  And Cleese, as the barrister straight-man at the heart of the story.

Aspects of the film aren’t as sharp as they seemed perhaps when it was first released.  But Kline is hilarious, and the film is still quite funny.

The kids thought it was “okay”.  But I found myself quoting lines the next day.

Evil Clutch (1988)

Evil Clutch (1988) movie poster

director Andreas Marfori
viewed: 02/10/2016

I’m grasping at straws here to say something that hasn’t already been said about Andreas Marfori’s Il Bosco 1, or as it is known here in the States via its distribution by Troma, Evil Clutch.

I don’t know if it’s fair to call it an Evil Dead (1981) knock-off, but it would be fair to say that it’s pretty doubtless that Marfori’s camera was significantly inspired by early Sam Raimi.  Though Marfori employs the invisible evil spirit-cam to no real clear reasoning.  The actors stare at the low angle steadicam as if it is a hyperactive puppy, which its movements resemble.

A young couple in the Italian Alps run afoul of an evil witch(?), a zombie(?), and a weird old guy with an electronic voice.  The voice acting (in dubbing or post-sound production) is among the worst you’ll encounter next to original American dubs of old Godzilla movies.  This adds to the daft and low-budget production’s sense of near surrealism in its out and out crapness.

Near surrealism and unintentional humor are this film’s prime merits.