They Live (1988)

They Live (1988) movie poster

director John Carpenter
viewed: 05/28/2016

The mordant satire of John Carpenter’s 1988 movie They Live is evident most avidly if you happen to simply Google “they live artwork” or “they live poster“.  I’d been thinking about the image I’d seen by Mitch O’Connell, his They Live/Trump, but it’s evident that artists on any side of the political spectrum can don the shades and see alien ghouls behind any political figure.

While it’s now a cult favorite, I’ll have to be honest and say that when I saw it in the theaters in 1988, I didn’t totally dig it.  I didn’t dig it in part because I didn’t like Roddy Piper (or professional wrestling) at the time.  The now legendary wrestling-style fight sequence between Piper and co-star Keith David, the absurd length of it, it seemed comic but not entirely intentional.  And as far as kicking ass and bubblegum, some zingers get more amusing on repeat than on first delivery.   Just ask Baby over in the corner there.

They Live seems to have come at a turning point in Carpenter’s career, leaving behind the fecund 1970’s and 1980’s and heading over into mediocrity and a pointed lack of invention.  Maybe it was the disappointment of They Live that engendered that in some part.

But They Live now lives much more than in 1988.  It’s go-to Capitalist critique imagery is glib but utterly apt.  Would that political awakening were as easy as sliding on sunglasses to see behind the veneer of culture and society.

I’ve come around to Piper.  I thought at the time I first saw it that the film’s lack of dialogue was perhaps due to concerns of his performance.  Who knows?  The long moments that are dialogue-free wind up being quite effective.  The silliness of the alien ghouls works as cartoonish short-hand and has become iconic.

It may not be an entirely great film, but it has elements of greatness, and those elements elevate the picture and are the fodder for cultural references to the film ever since.

Giant from the Unknown (1958)

Giant from the Unknown (1958) movie poster

director Richard E. Cunha
viewed: 05/26/2016

I came across Giant from the Unknown via Joe Dante’s web project Trailers from Hell (which I cannot recommend enough — Dante is to cult cinema what Martin Scorsese is to classic Hollywood and world cinema).  Dante refers to it as “the finest Spanish conquistador comes back from the dead movie ever made”, and who’s to argue that?

It’s junk, but it’s quite appealing junk, shot by Richard E. Cunha who also made Frankenstein’s Daughter, Missile to the Moon, and She Demons, all in 1958.  It features character make-up by legend Jack Pierce, who created all the great Universal Monsters back in the day as well as much else, and was filmed in large part up at Big Bear Lake in San Bernadino County, offering a small village mountain setting of some character.

In its way, its a creature feature like no other, with a “giant” conquistador risen back to life from suspended animation of some 500 years.  The only analog I could think of is the also bizarre, though also much more laughable Eegah (1962) about a random caveman in the California hills.

Though it’s nothing special other than its immense oddity, it’s well-filmed, and entertaining, especially if you like 1950’s schlock as much as I (or Joe Dante) do.

Pumpkinhead (1988)

Pumpkinhead (1988) movie poster

director Stan Winston
viewed: 05/25/2016

Hollywood make-up/FX man Stan Winston’s one and only film as director, Pumpkinhead, is notable for being Hollywood make-up/FX man Stan Winston’s one and only film as director.

Coming out in the late 1980’s, it often gets lost on the shuffle of that era’s slasher flicks, which it is decidedly not.  It’s a creature feature and the creature is indeed pretty cool, a giant demon creature summoned from a backwoods graveyard to effect revenge on whomever the summoner has targeted.  This summoning is at the behest of grieving father (a surprisingly hunky Lance Henriksen) whose little boy is run down accidentally by some hooligans.  Only too late does Henriksen realize the true horror of revenge.

The film features some nicely designed and shot sets, and the cast does a pretty decent job.  But the story is underdeveloped and the film’s tone is shifty, from some misty sentimentality to more typical horror scenes, not improved by the winsome soundtrack with harmonicas.  In the end, it’s mediocre at best, really.

That said, it’s easy to imagine having seen this film at the right point in one’s life and having really connected with it.  The scenes between Henriksen and his son (Matthew Hurley) are touching, if overdone.  And the creature and some of the settings are striking.

I will say that I’m pretty sure that I saw this movie back in the day at some point, but at no point was a jogged into a key memory of it, but I’m still not sure if I just don’t recall anything more than the monster.

The Hidden (1987)

The Hidden (1987) movie poster

director Jack Sholder
viewed: 05/23/2016

I was introduced to The Hidden by a friend/video store clerk in the late 1980’s.  He cited it as a surprisingly good and overlooked genre flick.  We took it home and enjoyed it.  At that time Kyle MacLachlan was known for only Dune (1984) and Blue Velvet (1986), so it was kind of novel seeing him outside a David Lynch movie.  But more than anything, the friend was right, The Hidden was a good flick, an interesting idea about a parasitical alien criminal hijacking human bodies and raising hell, pursued by what turns out to be another parasitical alien cop whose wife, child, and partner have been murdered by the villain.

I don’t know how obscure The Hidden is these days, but I’d never gotten around to seeing it again, despite always remembering it fondly.

This viewing is one of a much different context and the things that stood out to me were a strange variety of things: great street scenes of Los Angeles of the day, good character acting and writing around the bulk of the cast, playing off the buddy cop genre with its sci-fi twist, good creature effects (used surprisingly sparingly), and overall, I’d say it holds up well.  Never saw the apparently awful sequel.

Interestingly, I have recently watched The Brain from Planet Arous (1957), which while a very different movie features a similar plot about a criminal alien who takes over the bodies of humans while being pursued by other alien cops who do the same.  I don’t know if there is any influence or connection here, but I’d be surprised if there wasn’t at least “inspiration”.

It’s also got the weird sort of unexplained thing about how these parasite aliens seem to love fast cars and heavy music.

Black Moon (1975)

Black Moon (1975) movie poster

director Louis Malle
viewed: 05/21/2016

Louis Malle’s modernist take on Alice in Wonderland is an avant-garde surrealist fantasy concocted and filmed on Malle’s own estate in the Dordogne valley.  Using the logic, strategy and tone of Lewis Carroll’s comic dreamworld, but nothing explicit, Malle’s film isn’t beholden to reinterpreting famous characters or scenes but works a nouveau tale stumbling about in a cosmic haze.

Alice isn’t Alice.  She’s Lily, played by a 16 year old Cathryn Harrison (granddaughter of Rex).  And it’s not down a rabbit hole she falls, but rather her teasing nightmare is triggered by running over a badger on a country road.  This triggers her visions of armed forces, a Vietnam of men versus women in the French countryside, animals of all kinds, creepy, crawly, and fantastic.  Most notably of all, a Shetland pony(?) unicorn, squat and comical, not the least graceful.  Naked pagan children.  An old lady who’ll suckle at anyone’s teat.

Like other Alice’s, the tone is one of constant frustration and consternation, turns never going where she wants them, never explaining the bizarre moments, weirdnesses large and small.  The film is mostly sans dialogue, which is quite interesting. And Cathryn Harrison is quite good, I thought, as the curious and perplexed Lily.

It’s also worth noting that Malle co-wrote Black Moon with Joyce Buñuel, daughter of Luis.

The film brought two other Alice’s to my mind, Jaromil Jireš’s Valerie and Her Week of Wonders (1970) (even more loosely related and more explicitly about sexual awakening) and Jan Švankmajer’s brilliant 1988 Alice.  Louis Malle is a director that I’m still exploring, having gotten off on the wrong foot with him with his late effort Damages (1993) and only lately having seen Elevator to the Gallows (1958).  All I can say is that is a vast chasm between these films, but I have to say that I really liked Elevator and now Black Moon.  I’ll have to see more.

Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Only Angels Have Wings (1939) movie poster

director Howard Hawks
viewed: 05/20/2016

One of Howard Hawks’s most well-regarded films, Only Angels Have Wings is quite a picture.  It stars Cary Grant, one of Hawks’s favorite leading men, stepping out from screwball comedies and into an action-adventure drama about daring pilots in a dangerous Central or South American outpost, delivering mail over mountains and taking their lives in their hands on every flight.

It’s not at all bereft of comedy.  There are some wonderful comic moments throughout, but this is a gritty adventure featuring some really great stunt flying footage (as well as some less compelling miniatures for special effects.)

It also features the wonderful Jean Arthur (for whom I’ve developed quite an appreciation) as Grant’s love interest, a musician who dropped into the camp and never leaves.  Also terrific is Thomas Mitchell, who plays Grant’s best friend and fellow pilot.  And knock-out Rita Hayworth in one of her first significant roles as Grant’s ex.

It’s been written about a ton by better writers than me, but this is pure Hawks, the director around whom the auteur theory was largely conceived.  His rough and ready he-men, measured by their bonhomie and strengths of both character and body.  Bright, tough and witty women.  A concentrated and evocative world view.

It’s a great movie.

Romance (1999)

Romance (1999) movie poster

director Catherine Breillat
viewed: 05/17/2016

She may be no Agnès Varda or Claire Denis, but Catherine Breillat is a significant and important French film director.  Breillat’s filmography started somewhat sporadically, but has always keened in on the feminine and in particular feminine sexuality.  What makes her films so radical is how deeply centered they are in the point of view of their female protagonists, how openly they encounter and explore sexuality, with unapologetic frankness.

Why is this so radical?  Who else has done this?  Ever?

I don’t claim any expertise regarding Breillat.  I have only seen two other of her films to date, 36 Fillette (1988) and Bluebeard (2009), but whatever her shortcomings as a writer or filmmaker, she offers a perspective that is refreshingly different from almost anything else.

No moment of Romance is one unaware that the story and perspective are told from a woman’s point-of-view.  It’s the story of Marie (Caroline Ducey) narrating in voiceover, a woman exploring her sexuality through a series of encounters sought out as her boyfriend refuses to satisfy her.  In the case of Romance, the sex is explicit, but it’s not just physical, but intellectual as a pursuit.  And beyond the acts of sex, Breillat explores the social roles of women’s sexuality, from the gynecological table to motherhood.

It’s hard not to think of Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac (2013), which in some ways explores similar territory.  Except.  Of course, it’s Lars Von Trier’s take of female sexuality, a decidedly male interpretation, perhaps even decidedly misogynistic.

The power of Breillat’s vision and voice transcends to an extent the film’s quality.  Is it pretentious?  Is it at times absurd?  Clumsy?  I don’t even really know.  I do recommend reading Roger Ebert’s write-up of the film from 1999.

Breillat’s is a important feminist cinema.

Grand Hotel (1932)

Grand Hotel (1932) movie poster

director Edmund Goulding
viewed: 05/14/2016

Grand Hotel might not have “more stars than in the heavens” but the Best Picture Oscar winner did hail from MGM, the studio who touted that astronomical line.  It’s got Greta Garbo and her iconic “I want to be alone” line, John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, and a young Joan Crawford.  It’s an ensemble piece of drama made for a star-studded cast, each getting their moments to shine as they haunt the titular Grand Hotel in Berlin.

For a pre-code film, it’s not especially racy, though it has a little innuendo here and there.  Beyond its starry cast, the thing that struck me the most was the cinematography and set designs.  There are some trippy master shots looking down from the high mezzanines upon the main desk in the lobby floor.  I don’t know how all these were orchestrated but they are often eye-popping and create a singular sense of space and place for the action’s setting.

Some of the drama leans toward the maudlin and the film turns into more outright tragedy by the end.  It’s a film so much of its era in style and performance that it’s easy to imagine a modern audience finding it weird and overdone.  But it also has some true qualities that transcend the aspects that make it seem such a figment of its time.

In the long-run, I’m swinging between three and a half stars and four, though I think landing on the more conservative estimation.

Tale of Tales (2015)

Tale of Tales (2015) movie poster

director Matteo Garrone
viewed: 05/14/2016 at the Roxie Theater, SF, CA

Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales interweaves three fantasy stories derived from Giambattista Basile’s Pentamerone, a very early collection of folk tales, predating the brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson.  A vast swing from his 2008 contemporary crime film GomorraTale of Tales‘s luxuriant costumes and designs are often striking and impressive.

My favorite of the stories (my daughter’s favorite as well) was “The Flea” which features the very amusing Toby Jones as a king who nurtures a flea as a pet until it grows the size of a sheep.  The king cares more for his flea than for his own daughter and when the creature eventually dies, he uses its freakish pelt as a challenge to win his daughter’s hand.  The only one to guess what it is turns out to be an ogre.  Go figure.

Garrone cross-cuts between the three largely unrelated stories, stretching out over two hours.  While the stories adhere to their origins in many aspects, Garrone takes them off in different directions, too.  Since these are not likely stories that the average viewer has ever encountered, it’s kind of interesting to try and figure out where they are going and what was originary and what is invented.

Still, I questioned the cross-cutting.  The stories don’t really interweave or tie to one another significantly.  And while you will be struck by a terrific image of a deep-sea diving king slaying a sea serpent or Salma Hayak eating its bloody heart or other gorgeous shots, it is overlong.

We watched the film at the “Little Roxie”, the first time I’d been in the alternate screen there.  The kids really liked the theater.

Sixteen Candles (1984)

Sixteen Candles (1984) movie poster

director John Hughes
viewed: 05/13/2016

Sixteen Candles may be the same movie that I saw in 1984 and which I long thought to be the funniest of John Hughes’s films, but it’s also a very different movie than it was when it came out.  The upshot, I suppose, is that the movie itself is still the same, but the world has changed and I personally have changed, so that this teen comedy has shifted dramatically in my estimation.

I kind of knew this was coming.  Though I fondly remembered the movie from the Eighties as the funnier and more fun sibling of Hughes’s The Breakfast Club (1985), I had read some modern responses to the film’s glaring racial stereotype of Long Duk Dong (played by Gedde Watanabe) and creepy “date rape” jokes.  Watanabe’s portrayal is considered one of the most heinous Asian stereotypes ever imprinted on film, and his character has a good deal of screentime.

I warned my kids about this before we watched the movie.  I’d actually thought it was one that they would like and have had it on the back burner for a number of years.

The fact is that the film has a lot of cringe-worthy elements.  I found myself cringing far more than laughing.

On the positive side, Molly Ringwald and Anthony Michael Hall in particular, are terrific.  Hall is hilarious as the spastic prince of the nerds, Farmer Ted.  He’s by far the best thing about the movie.  And Ringwald, she really was an archetype of the times, a little prissy, but sympathetic and charming.

Hughes these days equates to a nostalgia of the 1980’s.  His name is synonymous with the teen films of that time and stands out in that crowd for his particular brand of pop Americana.  I guess it’s not too ironic that these films also belie themselves in their problematic representations, depicting a culture and attitudes that reveal some very unlikable truths.