Isle of Dogs (2018)

Isle of Dogs (2018) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 04/07/2018 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Even as a fairly inveterate Wes Anderson film aficionado, it’s pretty easy to see the problematics of Isle of Dogs and its version of Japan and the Japanese. Even while trying to be overtly respectful (the film is meant in part as an homage to Akira Kurosawa), you can still wind up with something that is culturally tone deaf and resultingly offensive.  The fall-out from responses to Kubo might have been a signal if caught early enough in production.

In part, I think Anderson’s approach here works. The whole film is taken as translations. The dogs barking is translated into English. The Japanese is paraphrased in translation, whenever actually translated.

The film is totally gorgeous. And if you’re apt to like Wes Anderson films, it’s certainly that with snappy dialogue, amusing characters, deadpan humor. Though Anderson himself is not an animator, this stop-motion design and animation team is so perfect for his aesthetics, which I’ve compared before to cinematic dioramas or shadowboxes.

What’s most interesting to me about this movie is that its Wes Anderson doing speculative fiction. The story is set 20 years in the future and the world is totally garbage and destroyed (or at least Garbage Island is, where we spend most of the film). It starts from a pessimistic point, in which “man’s best friend” and a metaphor perhaps for what is good in humanity is removed from human society due to a variety of diseases. To further the dystopia being shoved down society’s throat, the replacement dogs are robots, capable of viciousness only.

Ultimately, the film resolves itself too easily. The villainous Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) has a change of heart for no apparent good reason. The stakes in a Wes Anderson film are typically not so high, and viewers can usually guess that things will work out in the end more or less.

I enjoyed the film, as did my teenage daughter. But I tend to like Wes Anderson constructions. It really is beautifully rendered.

Torture Dungeon (1970)

Torture Dungeon (1970) movie poster

director Andy Milligan
viewed: 03/30/2018

Among Andy Milligan’s many claims to fame (or infamy), add to it that he made a Sweded version of Game of Thrones decades before Game of Thrones or “Sweding” was even a thing.

Torture Dungeon is the first Milligan flick I’ve seen since reading Jimmy McDonough’s biography of him, The Ghastly One, which by the bye, was brilliant. And though it seems now that every successive Andy Milligan picture I see becomes my new favorite, I agree with McDonough that Torture Dungeon is perhaps the most fun.

The costumes, the camp, the joyous and miserable sleaze, the character names, misanthropy and cheap gore. And Milligan himself! Though not onscreen, Milligan is everywhere in his movies. You can almost feel him shooting the footage, hear him breathing life into his dramas of discontent.

It’s tragic that most of his earlier pure Exploitation films are lost because they sound AMAZING!! I still have several more to seek out, but I’m already eager to revisit the first movies of his I’ve seen.

Torture Dungeon is a total lark.

Nightmares Come at Night (1972)

Nightmares Come at Night (1972)

director Jesús Franco
viewed: 03/26/2018

The nonsensical montage that runs through the title sequence of Nightmares Come at Night is quite the preview of the nonsense to come in the film.

It’s psychedelia-cum-psychosis-cum-psych-out. A psychotic break as art film and artsy nudity. And Jess Franco at his most narratively challenged and still primed on LSD?

Amazingly awful English dub, both in words and acting rounds this one out.

“Life is all shit”

Indeed.

Blood (1973)

Blood (1973) VHS cover

director Andy Milligan
viewed:  03/11/2018

I don’t know what it is about Andy Milligan films, but it seems like the more of them that I watch, the better I like them.  This is my 8th Milligan in a little over a year. My trajectory has run: The Body Beneath (1970), Fleshpot on 42nd Street (1973), Guru, the Mad Monk (1970), Carnage (1984), Bloodthirsty Butchers (1970), The Man with Two Heads (1972), and most recently, The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! (1972).

And Blood may be my favorite so far? Toppling The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! which had just taken the top spot. Are they getting better or am I becoming more attuned to Andy Milligan?

Hope Stansbury (from Rats/Werewolves) is here, as a perpetually discontented vampiress, being kept alive by the ministrations of her husband, Orlavsky (Alan Berendt), and his assistants, Carrie (Patricia Gaul), the legless Orlando (Michael Fischetti), the simpleminded Carlotta (Pichulina Hempi).

Everything was going great until…Ha, ha, it was never going great for this clan, returning to America from Europe to settle up with an exploitative accountant and reclaim Orlavsky’s family home. Orlavsky imprudently falls for Prudence (Pamela Adams), who unwittingly falls in with this crowd.

This crowd is a vampire, a werewolf, and some man-eating plants. I guess producer Walter Kent (who appears as “Man in office”) hadn’t quite the flair for titling that William Mishkin did, or this might have been called “The Vampires Are Here! The Werewolves, Too! And Man-Eating Plants! Frankenstien Is Coming!” Because, yes, at the end, as a joke, Dr. Frankenstein takes over the premises when all is said and done.

All this, in less than an hour. And of all his Milligan’s movies, which he shot himself, I loved the aesthetic achieved, even shooting the bulk of the film in his house and property.

The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! (1972)

The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! (1972) movie poster

director Andy Milligan
viewed: 02/26/2018

The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! is an Andy Milligan movie up and down but it’s also producer William Mishkin’s masterpiece of titling.  You get rats coming and werewolves going when you ask your auteur to shoot an additional 20 or so minutes of footage to a picture already in the can for some time. Apparently, inspired by the success of Willard, Mishkin had Milligan  add in a killer rats subplot. Not only did this give us that title but more interestingly, it gave us Andy Milligan himself.

“Well, when one brings as many little creatures of the night into the world as I, one forgets a little sex now and then.” Is this Andy Milligan getting all self-reflexive on us?

Because this is Andy Milligan, in character as Mr. Micawber, a rat-looking dude, selling flesh-eating rats, who ate both his left arm and half his face off, to Monica Mooney (Hope Stansbury). We also have Andy Milligan in another guise as an unnamed gunsmith selling a pistol and homemade silver bullets to a Miss Diana (Jackie Skarvellis). Both of these sequences were shot in New York, supplementing the werewolf movie Milligan had previously filmed in Britain.

But how fascinating it is to see Andy Milligan himself on camera! Albeit in deep character and make-up, hamming it up with apparently glee. As disjointed as these additional sequences are, I found them most enjoyable, especially the Mr. Micawber one.

Milligan is such an enigma. Lost as he is to life and time, save for his extant films and their utterly uniquely Milligan-esque character. The Milligan we know today is pieced together from his work and subsequent lore for present day fans he probably never imagined that he would ever have.

The Rats Are Coming! The Werewolves Are Here! is Milligan does Milligan. And I love it!

A Night to Dismember (1983)

A Night to Dismember (1983) title

director Doris Wishman
viewed: 02/05/2018

I don’t know how this movie was put together but A Night to Dismember is absolutely the ultimate outsider art cinematic masterpiece.

Doris Wishman already had two decades of Exploitation filmmaking under her belt, but maybe her style was always some form of Naïvist art. Taking her post-sync audio aesthetic into the 1980’s is as bold a move as I can imagine. Were any other movies made in the 1980’s with non-sync sound?

Whatever the intent, whatever the story behind it, A Night to Dismember is a surreal experience, a cinematic psychotic break, in which the lulling narration is almost as disjointed as the images.

Stunning.

Invaders from Mars (1986)

Invaders from Mars (1986) movie poster

director Tobe Hooper
viewed: 02/03/2018

Invaders from Mars, in which Tobe Hooper directs a 1986 B-movie remake of a 1956 B-movie. I give it a B minus.

Invaders from Mars may not be Hooper’s finest moment, though it captures him in a very conscious homage to Atomic Age science fiction. In fact, it draws some visual elements directly from the 1956 flick by William Cameron Menzies. In fact, the whole film is very in keeping with the original’s perspective, a space loving kid (Hunter Carson, here in 1986.)

Carson stars alongside his mother, Karen Black, who in the film is actually his school’s nurse. But when Carson’s parents (Timothy Bottoms and Laraine Newman) get taken over by aliens, Black surrogates him in what otherwise seems a vaguely odd and cozy fashion.

Even with Stan Winston and John Dykstra designing critters and Dan O’Bannon helping with the script, it’s hard not to feel somewhat cynical as the film devolves into truly child-like (child-ish?) fantasy towards the end.

Best scene: Louise Fletcher swallowing a bullfrog.

 

Destiny (1921)

Destiny (1921) movie poster

director Fritz Lang
viewed: 01/21/2018

Recently reading that Luis Buñuel found Fritz Lang’s 1921 film Destiny the inspiration that drove him to cinema, I made the mental note that I had to see it.

I got introduced to German Expressionism in my very first film class at 17, by way of Lang’s own M (1931). It was then that I realized that all my childhood fascination with horror films and the birth of horror films pretty much dovetailed with the German aesthetic in its silent heyday. I’d longed to see The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920) (often cited in those childhood texts as the first horror film of all time rather inaccurately), Nosferatu (1922), The Golem (1920), and Lang’s Metropolis (1927). I had to good luck that my mother took me to see the Lon Chaney silent films The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Though those latter ones aren’t German or Expressionist, I had a yen for these films from a young age.

Destiny is an exemplar of Expressionism while not at all really being a horror film. The film’s main story is the heart of the film: a young bride (Lil Dagover) loses her husband to death, and she goes into the realm of death to try to bring him back. Death is a human figure (the imposing Bernhard Goetze), but he is a monster in deeds only, giving Dagover three chances to save a lover from dying. Her failures in each of the stories leads her to plead with other people to give their lives for her husband. Her final realization, when she saves a baby from a fire, is what allows her to accept her “destiny”.

While it’s not my favorite of Lang’s films or the Expressionist genre, it is a very fine film. I try to take myself back to imagining a 21 year old Buñuel in 1921, encountering real cinema for the first time. It’s little wonder the Surrealists loved cinema so much.

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) movie poster

director Wes Anderson
viewed: 01/20/2018

I think you either like Wes Anderson movies or you don’t. No judgment either way. I fall into the former boat, and interestingly The Royal Tenenbaums was one of the first movies I logged on my movie site in 2002, when I started tracking all the movies I watch.

Thousands of movies later, I come back to it, to watch it with my teenage children, the first who was born the year it came out, the second who was yet to be a sparkle in her father’s eye, so to speak.

For all that, I think I feel much the same as I did sixteen years ago when I first saw this. I’ve come to have seen all of Anderson’s movies since and have much more of a spectrum upon which to measure it.

That said: Gene Hackman. All day. Every day. Especially in scenes with Pagoda
(Kumar Pallana, RIP). Other Anderson alums like Angelica Huston and Bill Murray, always appreciated as well.

The kids both liked it.

Los Olvidados (1950)

Los Olvidados (1950) movie poster

director Luis Buñuel
viewed: 01/15/2018

“The price of beans goes up, so does the price of songs.”

The lives of the street kids in Mexico City circa 1950 is the subject of Luis Buñuel’s Los Olvidados. They hustle and steal to survive, abandoned to the streets by parents who can’t or don’t want to care for them. The prologue narration makes it clear that this isn’t just a Mexico City reality, but one that can be found in any major city in the world, including New York and Paris.

And though the settings are the present day of the time, Los Olvidados is as relevant today, nearly 70 years later as when Buñuel made the film.

Buñuel strikes a tone that is unsentimental but still empathetic, depicting harsh brutalities and bitter ironies. Alongside some well-intentioned hopes. The ending is as bleak and ironic as any I can imagine, so much so, it’s nearly comic.

Los Olvidados had been on my watchlist for decades. Way too long. It’s a film I’ll be long mulling over.