Cool World (1992)

Cool World (1992) movie poster

director Ralph Bakshi
viewed: 01/06/2018

Ralph Bakshi’s Id is not PG-13.

In 1992, I, like about everybody else, considered Ralph Bakshi’s Cool World a bit of a disaster. In part from a technical perspective, comparing it with the much better budgeted and realized Who Framed Roger Rabbit from only a couple years prior. But also from the weird tension of a film that was a lot nastier and racier than it was allowed to be.

I’ve been working my way through Bakshi’s oeuvre for the past few years, holding back on this disastrous last feature of his (still rated 4% on Rotten Tomatoes, apparently). So, I put it on for me and my two teenagers.

Oddly, they both liked it. And oddly, so did I.

Though the concept is weak, featuring Brad Pitt as a 1945 ex-GI stuck in the Cool World, policing live action dudes from cartoon (“doodle”) babes with the one law in the land: miscegenation. Holli Wood (Kim Basinger) is the hot-to-trot honey, a modernized Tex Avery dream girl, who’ll do anything to become a “real world girl”. She seduces Gabriel Byrne, a cartoonist who thinks he dreamed up the Cool World, to take her across dimensions.

Bakshi (or whoever directed it) fails to get most any shot where a live action person looks like they are actually seeing the cartoons. Pitt is almost the worst at this and looks a lot of the time like he’s just hoping they don’t make him look like a moron.

The animations, wheeling out of control and nearly non-stop in Cool World is like a crack-fueled reel through 1930’s animation, in particular the Fleischer and Terrytoon studios, where nothing ever stopped moving, but pulsed in a cycle. This would maybe be just cute mice if that were it, but this is a Ralph Bakshi picture, so there is this utter counterculture subversion of all these figures, all chasing one another with knives or guns, twisted prostitutes and pimps, caricatures just barely this side of racial stereotypes, cutting loose with all they’ve got.

It finally all explodes on early 1990’s Las Vegas (now immensely quaint by comparison). The production values will never escape your mind, but if you give into the animation and designs, there is a lot of weird action.

And I don’t know, but I liked it this time through. It’s not that it’s necessarily any better, but I appreciate it more. And like I said, my teens did as well. Weird.

Wolf Devil Woman (1982)

 

Wolf Devil Woman (1982)

director Ling Chang
viewed: 12/23/2017

Pearl Chang (Ling Chang)’s meistresspiece, Wolf Devil Woman (a.k.a. Wolfen Ninja) is pure riotous nonsense, a glory to behold.  Maniacally edited, gleefully embodied, it’s Taiwanese wuxia like you never knew you needed. And campy as fuck.

The version of this available on Amazon Prime is right off a VHS copy with occasional glitches intact. That and the Wolfen Ninja version of dubbing, it’s a trip back to the days of video stores and bizarro, wondrous finds.

Pearl Chang led an apparently modestly successful career in Taiwanese television and film before branching out into writing, directing, starring in a handful of movies before disappearing from the known Earth. It may well be that she is a wolf-raised emissary from another dimension who can tear a rabbit in half with her bare hands, or even a zombie ninja.

She is wonderfully fun as the titular heroine, all-in as the lupine-minded superwoman come back to wreak vengeance on the klan-hatted and rubber-masked villains.

Too cool for school.

Blithe Spirit (1945)

Blithe Spirit (1945) movie poster

director David Lean
viewed: 12/22/2017

“In Blushing TECHINICOLOR

I love falling into a world of “blushing Technicolor,” and David Lean’s 1945 adaptation of Noël Coward’s Blithe Spirit is just the ticket. It’s a very British form of Screwball comedy, with wry and suggestive witticisms for which Coward was so well-known.

Rex Harrison and Constance Cummings are a happily married pair, both on their second marriages via widowhood. Happy, that is, until they toy with the supernatural through the help of Madame Arcati (the sublimely scene-stealing Margaret Rutherford). This brings back Harrison’s first wife, in blushing Technicolor green, the playful Kay Hammond, whose haunting at first only Harrison can see.

Maybe it’s not as perfect as Coward’s original theatrical version, in which both Hammond and Rutherford both appeared as here. But for my money, it’s a dark and coy frolic. Lustrous in color, charming all around.

The Shape of Water (2017)

The Shape of Water (2017) movie poster

director Guillermo del Toro
viewed: 12/10/2017 at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

Though it’s not post-modern in most ways, Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is a revisionist horror fantasy.

It’s the movie in which the monster gets the girl.

Del Toro mashes up and masticates a lot of different things here, including the 1960’s aesthetics and period shorthand of TV’s Mad Men, all while simmering in the sauce of lush designs. With its initial tone of fairy tale, I first thought that the world of The Shape of Water was indeed a fantasy, like one of Jean-Pierre Jeunet and Marc Caro. But as the film wears on, this is very much meant to be the Maryland of the 1960’s.

The creature, beautifully designed indeed, is the romantic hero here. How is it so different than the Abe Sapien of del Toro’s Hellboy films? Inhabited by Doug Jones, as in the other films, the creature is really only a shade away.  I find this somewhat perplexing.

The film, however, isn’t some miraculous fantasy love story. Well, it is and it isn’t. The writing is less than great. After watching del Toro’s television show The Strain (a bit), the cracks and lacks in quality are more acceptable in pulpier genre junk than vaguely arthouse dreamwork. As inverted as the concept is, the execution is almost pedestrian outside of the design work.

Jack the Giant Killer (1962)

Jack the Giant Killer (1962) movie poster

director Nathan H. Juran
viewed: 12/02/2017

Nathan H. Juran is not a major name in horror and science fiction cinema, but it isn’t for lack of work or even lack of notable works. From The Deadly Mantis (1957), 20 Million Miles to Earth (1957), The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958),  The Brain from Planet Arous (1958), Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (1958), to First Men in the Moon (1964), he made a lot of pictures with a lot of special effects. Though he’s probably best known for the films in which Ray Harryhausen provided the stop-motion action, Juran rose from the art department and worked with a number of creative teams.

Jack the Giant Killer is almost a knock-off of his more classic The 7th Voyage of Sinbad with Harryhausen. They brought back hero Kerwin Mathews and villain Torin Thatcher and straight-up ripped off Harryhausen’s Cyclops from the earlier film. The monster designs and execution of the action are by no means up to Harryhausen’s level, but there’s actually quite a bit of action and creatures here.

“Captain! More witches on the quarterdeck!”

Jack (Mathews) does slay a giant. He also fights another two-headed giant but that one is really slain by the octo-whatever-serpent. My personal favorites are the witches, which are not stop-motion but oddly-costumed ladies with different powers that attack in glowing color-tinted action, setting animated fire to the ship and blowing wind all around. They’re really almost like a cavalcade of television kaiju characters.

Fun stuff.

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).

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.

Hercules Against the Moon Men (1964)

Hercules Against the Moon Men (1964) movie poster

director Giacomo Gentilomo
viewed: 09/17/2017

“Under the evil influence of Uranus,” Hercules Against the Moon Men is goofy peplum fun. Peplum is a new term to me for “sword and sandal” movies.  I like it.

It totally channels old movie serials (maybe because as a genre it dates back to silent films and old genre tropes. That and more contemporary of television’s Batman.

Totally agree that Alan Steel is a very good Hercules.

The moon men are silly as fuck but awesome. Sadly they get hardly any screen time. This film needs more moon men.

Evil queen, Samara (Jany Clair), looks vaguely like a brunette Nancy Grace but without her harpy voice. She’s somehow worked a deal with the moon men to do evil.

Needs more moon men.

Requiem for a Vampire (1971)

Requiem for a Vampire (1971) movie poster

director Jean Rollin
viewed: 06/04/2017

Jean Rollin was nothing if not a cinematic poet. Since he worked on the cheap and in the horror and porn/sexploitation genres, who knows how close he ever came to fully realizing his visions. But visions they are, even the worst of his films oozes dreamy fantasy over any storyline or plotting.

I’ve now watched enough of his filmic corpus to say that I am indeed a fan. That said, I’m still contemplating his work and have yet to fully develop any well-constructed conclusions.

Requiem for a Vampire follows many of his themes and ideas: vampires, young runaways, lesbian lovers, strange cults, all set against the French countryside, venerable houses or ruins. Requiem begins oddly with a car chase, in media res, with two clown-painted girls and a getaway driver pursued by gunmen. They do indeed get away, but the driver is killed, so the girls torch the car and then wander through a cemetery to ruins haunted by a vampire cult.

Most interestingly, Rollin runs much of Requiem’s opening with the barest amount of dialog. Though this might have been a functional thing (non-sync sound), it also turns the film into a more purely visual one, telling the story through action and imagery and not propelled by dialogue.

In the end, the girls are challenge to become vampires or remain virgins and while this again speaks to Rollin’s themes of women positioned in opposition to patriarchal demands, fleeing a society for which they have no place, the film also features some more brute rape as well.

I don’t know where it falls in my Rollin spectrum, but it’s certainly an undeniable Rollin picture.

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?