Shoah (1985)

Shoah (1985) movie poster

director Claude Lanzmann
viewed: 03/18/2017-03/25/2017

In the latter 20th century, if there was one thing that seemed rather universally regarded was that World War II was fought against an enemy that was incredibly, absolutely and terribly bad. Nazi Germany offered a clarity of an evil that one and all could recognize as “evil”, that the war was fought against an enemy as black-and-white as morality could achieve. That later wars were increasingly moral quagmires that could not by any means be reduced to good versus evil, right and wrong, WWII and Nazi Germany was something certain and awful, horrendous nearly beyond comprehension.

The 21st century and in particular the most recent years has brought a shocking open rise in stark racism and even a resurgence in Nazism. Certainly factions persisted that supported white supremacy and other repugnant beliefs but they remained submerged or simply existed as a small fringe of people. With the rise of candidate Trump, the racists have been emboldened and are making themselves known and I can’t help but to be continually shocked by this.

I try not to be reductive in my thinking, and I know that even in Nazi Germany there were more complex stories played out behind the monstrosity of the Third Reich. But Adolph Hitler, Hermann Göring, Reinhard Heydrich, and the mind trust behind “The Final Solution” still fall into the most abject and clear demarcation of inhumanity as known in history.

It is from this place of thinking that I decided to watch Claude Lanzmann’s 1985 document, Shoah.

This is, in essence, why Shoah was made. Testament, testimony, perhaps most embodied in Filip Müller, who survived Auschwitz in part to tell of those who perished there. The idea of remembrance and commitment to never allowing something of this nature to happen ever again, nor to forget those that died.

There is so much in the film’s nearly 10 hours, so much to process.

It’s interesting that it’s 30-40 years post-war that Lanzmann catches these people. And it’s good that he did to record their stories and testimonies because most, if not all of them are now dead. As WWII recedes further and further into the past, like any event, those who actually lived through it, bore witness to these things, will eventually pass on as well and the opportunity for recording oral history will be gone.

I was most struck by two things in particular. One, the filming of the sites of the death camps in their then present day situation. Such contrast to the events that happened in those places, now monuments or ruins in the sedate Polish countryside. Haunting when infused with the telling of the mass murders that took place there.

And secondly, the overwhelming fact of the Final Solution itself. This idea to exterminate an entire race of people (and others also considered undesirable) itself is almost mechanical in its conception. That industrialized process was employed to eradicate human beings follows almost logically. And in reality was frighteningly efficient. To consider the thinking that led to all this is to try to consider and understand a stark form of madness.

Whatever comes of our present time, it is of value to arm oneself with knowledge and information, facts. Our remembrance is continued remembrance to deny the deniers, those that look to obfuscate truth and spread lies as facts. To remember to what heinous and horrific degree the logic of hate and xenophobia can become. That genocide is real.

Life (2017)

Life (2017) movie poster

director Daniel Espinosa
viewed: 03/25/2017 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Life is a big budget science fiction/horror thriller featuring a couple of pretty big stars, Jake Gyllenhaal and Ryan Reynolds. And it “looks” good. Director Daniel Espinosa is clearly interested in aesthetics. Maybe trying to heighten the film artistically rather than embracing genre and just going for it.

It’s also intensely derivative. And not too thrilling and certainly not scary. And the writing…oh the script…

I was teetering between “meh” and dislike until the pivotal dramatic scene toward the end…that relied on reading “Goodnight, Moon” and transposing it on the diegetic world. And then…you lost me.

My kids and I were all nonplussed, not that we had particular expectations.

Alice in Wonderland (1915)

Alice in Wonderland (1915) movie poster

director  W.W. Young
viewed: 03/22/2017

There are many Alices in Wonderlands. Many. This Alice in Wonderland may be the first feature-length filmed version. By 1915, feature-length was still becoming a thing.

As you will read in most any write-up on this picture, the costuming is the film’s greatest strength. Made in aspects of grotesquerie, they are caricatures in the popular style of Punch illustrations of the time, with some surprising creatures of the menagerie.

Outside of that, it’s fair to say that it’s a bit dull.

Obviously shot in the Southern California outdoors that stand in for both England and Wonderland, it still bears a lot of the theater rather than purely of the cinema.

But much like the silent version of Snow White (1916) that so influenced Walt Disney into his version of that tale, some of the designs seem to have found play in the Alice in Wonderland (1951) as well, or is that just my imagination?

Multiple Maniacs (1970)

Multiple Maniacs (1970) movie poster

director John Waters
viewed: 03/21/2017

Multiple Maniacs, perhaps, but there will ever only be one Divine!

John Waters’s long languishing (due to music rights issues) Multiple Maniacs is back and restored on Criterion and so very, very deserving it is. I’ll say it again: John Waters is a national treasure.

More than anything, Mulitple Maniacs is Divine’s big star turn. When she first appears on screen, naked, in a tent, laying on he stomach, it’s every bit as big and glorious as Marlene Dietrich or Greta Garbo. Of course, in the wonderfully perverse and gloriously up-ending way of the Dreamland world. Waters and Divine had worked together before, but here in Multiple Maniacs it’s clear that the muse/greatest star is born.

And born again and again throughout the film, jabbing with maniacal aplomb in the final shot.

The black-and-white is a nice change, though I understand it was employed for cost reasons. Waters turns the Exploitation vibe of carny shocks and cheap thrills into the purest punk rock queer wunderbar.

It’s fantastic stuff, and yet it’s also clear that Multiple Maniacs was the warm-up act for the brilliant Pink Flamingos (1972).

I’ll give it four stars, but I give it a zillion hearts.

The Monster of Camp Sunshine or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nature (1964)

Monster of Camp Sunshine (1964) screen grab

director Ferenc Leroget
viewed: 03/20/2017

The Monster of Camp Sunshine or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Nature by title alone might tell you that this is one of the weirder Nudist films of the 1960’s. Certainly that I have seen. It’s Nudist film meets monster movie wherein the monster is a deformed mentally disabled gardener who drank some funky water and made him go ape.

It starts out with a couple of big city girls who have taken to nudism to loosen up. A couple of them are models often asked to disrobe and so they need to also drop those hang-ups about being naked. One of the girls, though, works in a laboratory where a scientist creates this potion that turns the lab rats murderous. Easily the best scene in the movie is the girl attacked by rats and chased out a window.

This is the first non Doris Wishman nudist flick I’ve seen, so it’s also kind of interesting in the whole. It plays out with some rough animations and also some intertitles a-la Silent film, which maybe the filmmakers reckoned of because they were shooting non-sync sound.

Still, it’s a nudist film, so it’s slow going and the thrills are seriously mild. But still, this was a bit more interesting than average, mainly for weirdness factor.

Wild Beasts (1984)

Wild Beasts (1984) movie poster

director Franco Prosperi
viewed: 03/19/2017

Zoo animals on PCP. Concept alone is awesome.

Coming from Franco Prosperi, director of Mondo Cane (1962) and the infamous Africa addio (1966) and Goodbye Uncle Tom (1971), it probably shouldn’t surprise you that Wild Beasts contains something outre, transgressive, and/or repugnant.

While it’s kind of impressive the number and variety of wild animals that make appearances here, it’s probably really frightening to think of the conditions in which this film was shot. Prosperi gets elephants, a polar bear, a cheetah, lions, tigers, a hyena all running around Frankfurt terrorizing and killing humans while crazed by PCP-laced water. He includes scenes of the hyena and tigers mauling (and presumably killing) pigs and cows. Not exactly nature documentary material.

Most disturbingly, the rats. Rats attack a cat with dubious concern for the cat and then the rats are set on fire with zero concern for the rats. The line from the film even says that fire is the only way to take care of them.

It’s kind of a Mondo movie squeezed into a horror thriller, with the shock value of the real animals and real animal endangerment and torture. When you’re looking for “out there” cinema, you’ve got your stuff right here. If you have an ounce of empathy, you’re not going to be entirely comfortable with it though.

Get Out (2017)

Get Out (2017) movie poster

director Jordan Peele
viewed: 03/19/2017 at AMC Metreon 16, SF, CA

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, is a horror comedy parable about being black in a particularly white part of America. And I say parable because it’s not depicting gritty reality and when it finally moves from creepy to out-and-out outlandish, it holds together tightly.

Daniel Kaluuya plays Chris, a young photographer dating a pretty white girl, Rose (Allison Williams), making their first visit to meet Rose’s family, Bradley Whitford (dad), Catherine Keener (mom), and Caleb Landry Jones (bro). Prepared to an extent for the fish out of water feeling of being a black guy in an isolated, posh very white place, Chris has no idea what he’s really gotten himself into.

The film is extremely well-tuned, and for the most part, plays out an eeriness of disquiet, of friendly facades and tacit casual racism. Only this weirdness hides a more far out reality that also has metaphorical form. Peele’s commentary on racism and blackness and whiteness in America is timely, interesting, and hardly glib.

Most of the comedy comes in the form of Chris’s friend Rob, played by Lil Rey Howery, a TSA agent, whose role is small, which is good because he could easily have stolen the show with more screentime. His character offers some counterbalance to the horrors in which Chris has found himself immersed.

A very strong debut. An original and worthwhile horror film. My kids also both enjoyed it.

Marihuana (1936)

Marihuana (1936) movie poster

director Dwain Esper
viewed: 03/17/2017

Watch Marihuana and mainline Exploitation from the Godfather of the genre, Dwain Esper. I discovered Esper, myself, about 10 years ago, watching his maniac Maniac (1934), which I do truly believe must be his trash masterpiece. Marihuana is his own production, made after he picked up Louis J. Gasnier’s Tell Your Children and re-branded it the now classic Reefer Madness (1936).

Not a ton is known about Esper, though there is a good article about him on Grindhouse Therapy that I recommend. He and his wife, Hildegarde Stadie, whom wrote and collaborated on his films, came from the carnival background (which a lot of great Exploitation filmmakers would as well in the future), made his films outside of the influence of the film code, traveled around and showed his films alongside burlesques in tents around the U.S.

His stuff is often as outrageous as anything that would come 20-30 years later, though often shrouded in the guise of being Instructional and for the public good, rather than just out and out sleazy and titillating as they were. This was the 1930’s and this stuff makes pre-code films looks awful tame.

Marihuana tells the tale of teenager Burma Roberts (Harley Wood) who goes to one booze and weed party and comes out with a drowned friend, hooked on Mary Jane, and knocked up to boot. The wayward path leads her boyfriend to get shot down by the cops and her to become a needle-abusing drug queen. Not bad for 57 minutes!

Esper’s Marihuana is nowhere as outrageous and shocking as Maniac and while arguably “better” than Reefer Madness, maybe less so in its innate inanity and camp. Because it’s not quite as pure camp as Reefer Madness, though it’s got gratuitous nudity thrown in for good measure. Maybe it’s a little grittier and noirish, too.

I’ll tell you this much: Dwain Esper is the godfather of Exploitation, a true trailblazer of sleaze and trash and deserves far more recognition than he’s gotten.

Torture Garden (1967)

Torture Garden (1967) movie poster

director Freddie Francis
viewed: 03/15/2017

It seems that nobody particularly loves the Amicus anthology horror film, Torture Garden. And I guess I’m not going to be the first one to break with the herd on it. It’s mediocrity at best, pretty stupid at worst, and yet certainly not unworthy of viewing.

Robert Bloch scripts the stories and the wrap-around here, and even with the likes of Jack Palance, Burgess Meredith, and Peter Cushing, there isn’t too much vibrance.

Meredith stars in the wrap-around as Dr. Diabolo, who runs a sideshow tent with an extra bit of fortune telling horror stories. Visitors are asked to gaze upon the “shears of fate”, which is kind of weird. The best of these stories includes both Palance and Cushing as Edgar Allan Poe buffs.

I just recently started re-watching Rod Serling’s Night Gallery episodes, which ran from 1969-1970, and this film felt of its ilk. This is neither praise nor criticism, though I always preferred The Twilight Zone to its later cousin. Other Amicus anthologies have proven better, particularly Asylum (1972).

The Handmaiden (2016)

The Handmaiden (2016) movie poster

director Park Chan-wook
viewed: 03/13/2017

Elegant and beautifully staged, Park Chan-wook’s The Handmaiden is an erotic drama featuring many switchbacks and twist and turns. Adapted from a novel by Welsh author Sarah Waters, Park moves the setting of the film to Japanese-occupied Korea in the early 20th Century.

The story itself involves an aristocratic collector of erotic books, a couple of clever thieves playing a long con, and a lonely, isolated young woman, betrothed to the book collector, the widower of her aunt.

The style Park employs here seems intently focused on Western versus Asian, Japanese versus Korean, and the house at which most of the story takes place is a vivid depiction of these characteristics. Part of the house is in the Victorian style, while another part of the house is uniquely Japanese. This plays out in interiors as well, and I think also the way that Park shoots the scenes.

Beyond the story, the plot, this seems to be a key focal point of the film. I don’t know if I’m knowledgeable enough about Japanese and Korean culture to fully extrapolate the details, but the characters are Koreans pretending to be Japanese, or trying to become Japanese. Aspirations are also toward very Western traditions and styles and even modern (for the time) psychiatric treatment.

For one viewing, that is about all I can pull from it, but it was quite interesting. I don’t think I liked it quite as much as others, though I thought it was quite good.  I’ve been a fan since Oldboy (2003) and this was a vast improvement over Stoker (2013). Quite an interesting film.