Sadko (1952)

Sadko (1952) movie poster

director  Aleksandr Ptushko
viewed: 11/15/2017

Aleksandr Ptushko’s Sadko, a.k.a. the Americanized The Magic Voyage of Sinbad, is the Russian fantasy film gone all Cecil B DeMille. Featuring a huge cast, lush costumes and sets, its production values seem miles higher than some other films of the period and genre. It won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the Venice International Film Festival, so maybe the financing aspired for more.

It rings with song, specifically the music of the Rimsky-Korsakov opera that the story works around. Sadko (Sergei Stolyarov) is the gusli-stroking baritone who returns to Novgorod to find rich merchants hording all the goods and deep levels of poverty. He also encounters a Princess from the sea who falls in love with him and helps him catch some golden fish.

Once he’s trounced the merchants and distributed all the goods, he still finds that poverty abounds, so he sets out on another quest, to capture the bird of happiness, which takes him from northern shores held by villainous Vikings to India, a land of wealth and sneaky duplicitous cheats.

Pthushko is known for his visual effects and there are some gorgeous ones on display. Even rising from the ocean looks extra-special. But the best effect is the phoenix herself, the bird of paradise who is much more like a Siren or a harpy or something.

Sadly the fantasy elements aren’t as prevalent in the running time as would make this film much more than it is. But it is stunning. I even liked the undersea world that others tend to scoff at.  Very much in the spirit (if also utterly Russian) of Raoul Walsh’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924).

Cut-Throats Nine (1972)

Cut-Throats Nine (1972) movie poster

director Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent
viewed: 11/13/2017

Cut-Throats Nine arrives as advertised, a pessimistic and violent Western, filmed in the snowy beauty of the Pyrenees. Its delicious premise, a lone lawman and his daughter are marching a chain gang across the snowy mountains, is inherently fraught with tension. The simplicity of this scenario is upended when it turns out that the chains that hold the men together are made of the gold that they had mined. And the intentions of even the lawman are thrown into deep doubt.

Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent uses interesting freeze frame preludes to flashbacks, stylizing further the backstories to the rough-hewn characters. Marchent and cinematographer Luis Cuadrado make the most of the gorgeous, icy landscapes.

It’s probably my second favorite Spaghetti Western I’ve newly seen this year, after Cemetery Without Crosses  (1969). Interesting since these two aren’t purely Italian films and feature directors who were French and Spanish. Not that any grouping or genre needs to be completely neat and clean.

Excellent stuff.

 

The Blood on Satan’s Claw (1971)

The Blood on Satan's Claw (1971) movie poster

director Piers Haggard
viewed: 11/12/2017

Folk horror classic, The Blood on Satan’s Claw is a truly attractive production. It’s also a very earnest horror film, set in the 18th century in the English countryside. All the children, and some peasants, are going stark raving wild with evil, delving into sex and murder, and devil worship.

Be careful what you unearth when you plow the field.

Most of this is in the foreground, but it’s funny as I was reading up on this before writing, how much more the devil is in the details. When infected with evil, the innocent find a dark hairy patch on their bodies. Am I the only one who didn’t immediately attach that to adolescence and sexual maturity? Like the “deformed anatomy in those furrows,” there seems to be a lot of codified sexual innuendo throughout.

Of course, Linda Hayden as Angel, strips right down in the church to try to tempt the priest. And poor Cathy Vespers (Wendy Padbury) gets raped in a riotous frenzy.

There is that tension in a film like this, whether all is real or imagined. These are witch hunters, after all, seeking out the evil, seeing the evil in the children. Of course, in this case, it seems like the evil is real and there actually is blood on a claw belonging to some devil.

Superior stuff.

Lady Bird (2017)

Lady Bird (2017) movie poster

director Greta Gerwig
viewed: 11/12/2017

Lady Bird is Greta Gerwig’s love letter to her hometown of Sacramento, California, quite probably the very first cinematic love letter to the capitol of the Golden State. The film opens with a quote from Joan Didion, “Anybody who talks about California hedonism has never spent a Christmas in Sacramento.” And that deprecation is part of the tone of the film.

It’s 2002 in Sacramento, very specifically 2002. And though Gerwig says that the film isn’t exactly autobiographical, it’s hard not to think that she found her perfect counterpart in Saoirse Ronan who stars as Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson. The whole cast is pretty perfect. Laurie Metcalf and Tracy Letts are impeccable.

Ronan is lovely and hilarious as the girl from the  (literal) “wrong side of the tracks”. Precocious and out-spoken, she struggles to define and understand her self-image as well as her self. It’s classic coming-of-age stuff. Authenticity and recognition are elements that make a film like this work, and I thought it was interesting that Ronan chose to play Lady Bird with her natural pock-marked cheeks (interestingly enough air-brushed in the movie poster). It adds that je ne sais quoi that I think she intended.

More than anything, it’s a very funny movie, with great character and characters. I took my two teenagers and they both really liked the movie as well.

Pan’s Labyrinth (2006)

Pan's Labyrinth (2006) movie poster

director Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 11/11/2017

It had been a decade since I saw Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth on its initial release in the theater. Like a lot of people, I’ve considered it his best film, certainly a partner to his 2001 The Devil’s Backbone.

I generally enjoy del Toro’s work, though his more commercial stuff seems thin on substance, if aesthetically pleasing and occasionally pretty fun.  I follow him on social media and even got to go see his collection of stuff at the LACMA Guillermo del Toro: At Home with Monsters.

In 2007, my kids were 6 and 3 so I didn’t take them to see Pan’s Labyrinth at the time. I’ve long thought they might enjoy it, but only just now got around to sharing it with them.

I was surprised that my daughter was sort of nonplussed about it. I’d thought she would dig it more. My son, as is his wont, fell asleep early on but wanted to watch it again.

I think it holds up pretty well. The aesthetics and story are nice, the performers solid. It’s a dark fairy tale about childhood, escapism and fantasy. The CGI doesn’t hold up as well, but it never does if you ask me. Maybe it’s not as deep or rich as it could be, but I’d still call it his most complete film.

Fateful Findings (2012)

Fateful Findings (2012) movie poster

director Neil Breen
viewed: 11/10/2017

Color me initiated into the world Neil Breen.

Fateful Findings is a indeed a new Best-Worst Movie at a time when Tommy Wiseau’s The Room (2003) is getting a bio pic released. And Neil Breen is the fused offspring of Bob Odenkirk and Gary Shandling auteur-star to give us hope that truly sincere and amazing bad movies can continue to be made.

How many laptops were killed to make this movie?

Am I the only one to sense Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain in this?

I’m a little reticent to take my pot-shots at it. It’s sublime and bizarre, incoherent and goofy, with a soundtrack that will haunt your dreams.

As epic as it is in its badness, I can’t help but crave to see other Neil Breen films. To be honest, I never felt this way about Tommy Wiseau.

The Man with Two Brains (1982)

The Man with Two Brains (1982) movie poster

director  Carl Reiner
viewed: 11/10/2017

“Into the mud, scum queen!”

While these days Steve Martin prefers his banjo to comedy, it’s worth recalling that at one point in time (mid-1970’s-early 1980’s), he was one of the funniest people in the world. Some of his best stuff was for TV specials and his own comedy records, but when he first started venturing into movies, he made a series of really interesting features.

Arguably, The Man with Two Brains may be his funniest. It’s co-written by Martin and director Carl Reiner (and George Gipe), and it’s a madcap romp through 1950’s science fiction with a dash of film noir thrown in.

Not only is Martin at the top of his game, the outrageously gorgeous Kathleen Turner is at the peak of hers, with her low sexy voice turned up to 11 and set for comedy.

Frankly, the direction and editing are kind of a hack, but when you’ve got gag after gag flying at you at such incessant speed that you hardly have time for an extra “Hfuhruhurr” much less an “Uumellmahaye”.

It’s not perfect by any means, but it is thoroughly hilarious.

The Suckling (1990)

The Suckling (1990)

director Francis Teri
viewed: 11/08/2017

“You’ve got your wish, penis-brain. You’re locked in a whorehouse for life.”

The Suckling is amazeballs, a word I do not use lightly.  It’s a Henenlotter-esque sleazy monster-fest with tons of cool and campy practical creature effects. And, yes, this is the aborted fetus down the toilet into the toxic waste sewer revenge movie you never knew how much you needed. I loved that fetus!

I am fully willing to believe that this gloriously tasteless junk culture wonder has been appropriated in some anti-abortion tribe as a realistic scare film.

Though it sags in the middle, much like a weaponized umbilicus, it comes lashing back. Total respect to director Francis Teri and everyone else on the picture. When you’ve got a low budget but fuck it you’ve got ambition, don’t let the bastards hold you back.

And yes, it’s the touches like the repurposed coathanger, first abortion tool then garment holder, that prove this movie’s hilarious, nasty comic soul.

Drive-In Massacre (1976)

Drive-In Massacre (1976) movie poster

director Stu Segall
viewed: 11/06/2017

“On August 10th in a California drive-in it all began…”

Drive-in Massacre is 100% seedy underbelly. Two schlubby detectives try to solve a series of sword murders at a rough little drive-in theater that’s run by ex-carnies.

Before you get too excited, it must be pointed out that this low-budget indie production isn’t so much a lost gem as it is occasionally dull but overall interesting oddity.

For me, the quirks and oddity outweigh the drudgery of some scenes.

Featuring lines like “I just wanted to beat my meat!” spoken by the peeping tom pepper the flick as do bursts of surprisingly decent gore.

They don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Swamp Thing (1982)

Swamp Thing (1982) movie poster

director Wes Craven
viewed: 11/05/2017

His ass is grass. Or moss. Or slime. Or something. But he’s pretty cool. He’s the Swamp Thing, straight outta 1982 from horror great Wes Craven, no less.

For 1982, Swamp Thing is solid comic book entertainment. Keep in mind, this is before the modern superhero era, even before Swamp Thing got Alan Moore-ed. He always had some legitimate cool from the pencil and ink of legend Bernie Wrightson (RIP).

But it’s also got its limitations, also very 1982 and budget-related. If they could have afforded Rick Baker, they might have gotten a less rubbery-looking Swamp Thing and with a bit more of a budget maybe a little more interesting action throughout.

But it does have Adrienne Barbeau and that final monster showdown with more practical effects and designs that raise it out of the muck and makes for good times.

Would be a good double feature with 1982’s Creepshow.