Saturday, December 27, 2014

THE BABADOOK (2014) - A Review
So we went from seeing a not so good movie the day before (The Interview), where the show was sold out and then some, to seeing a much better film (The Babadook) where we were literally the only ones in the theater. Yes, my wife and I had our own private screening. Hopefully business will pick up, because, imperfect though it may be, The Babadook certainly deserves to be seen.

Here's a film that's in a bit of a bind, though, audience attracting-wise. It's being marketed as a horror film, which, in a sense, it is. But it's actually more of a dark drama, with the horror coming from the all-too-common terrors of mental illness and family dysfunction. If you take the single worst moment of stress, frustration, exhaustion, anger and loneliness that every parent must have felt at some time, and extend it out over 90 minutes, then you probably get something like The Babadook.
Essie Davis plays widowed mom Amelia. Noah Wiseman is her seemingly troubled son, Sam. Her late husband died in a car crash while driving Amelia to the hospital while she was in labor. She hasn't been the same since, and hasn't been able to move on - especially since Sam is quick to talk to anyone and everyone about how his dad died while driving his mom to the hospital to have him. Loneliness and a deep sense of loss hang over them like a dark cloud.

A more literal dark cloud appears when Sam becomes convinced that a character named Mister Babadook has entered their lives, and is bent on doing them harm. Sam's increasing paranoia and acting out over this are all it takes to push the family over the edge, with disastrous consequences at work, school, with friends, etc. Soon, what had been a shaky foundation for Sam and Amelia has crumbled altogether, and what had been a slow downward spiral becomes a headlong plunge into Hell.
Is the Babadook real, or imagined? If the Babadook is real, who is really the Babadook? Is the menace to Sam and Amelia internal, or external?
Lots of questions, and I won't answer any of them here, because they're open to interpretation, and you should see the film and decide for yourself. This is the first feature written and directed by former actress Jennifer Kent, and it is a very accomplished piece overall. The acting and direction and (notably gray and black) production design are all excellent. This is very much a women's picture, in the best sense, which raises another quandary for the film, since I suspect that this might well be a story that a lot of women - well, women who are parents, anyway - might really dislike, or feel uncomfortable with. Far from being some out-there horror fantasy, this is a film that goes to some all too real dark places.
Though I liked the film quite a bit, I did have some minor issues with the ending - details of which I will not (SPOILER NON-ALERT!!!) go into here. I urge you to see it for yourself, and then discuss.
In the meantime, here's hoping that some smart producer somewhere is, even as we speak, offering Jennifer Kent lots of money to do something else. Creativity and talent such as she has demonstrated here should be rewarded and encouraged. Here's hoping.

Thanks to Paul at the Darkside for bringing this in. Here's also hoping (again) that business picks up for this film. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

THE INTERVIEW (2014) - A Review
Well, first of all, let me just say that, in a strange way, all the controversy around this film is probably the best thing that could have happened to it. Without it, I think it would have been released on Christmas Day (an odd choice for a release date, to be sure), and been something of a flop, and then quickly forgotten.
Instead, it's a cause, a small piece of Cinema History, and somehow the sum will end up being greater than the parts.
Which is to say, as a film, and just as a film, The Interview is nothing memorable. An interesting and challenging idea, to be sure, but in its execution (mind the pun!) mostly a series of missed opportunities and shallow performances.
But, you ask, is it offensive? I would say yes, because I find comedies that aren't actually very funny offensive. As someone who is fascinated by North Korea, and has read literally dozens of books about the dystopian "Hermit Kingdom," I would also add that I found the gentle and sympathetic way that Kim Jong Un was (mostly) portrayed to be offensive as well. Imagine if Hitler had been portrayed as just being a frustrated painter, and you'll have some idea of how Kim is portrayed here. Given the decades of brutality that his family has personally overseen, I for one am past the point of wanting to "understand" or "empathize" with Kim - he just needs to be gone.
Given all that, as I said above, I think the plot about a shallow celebutante TV host being engaged to assassinate Kim to be both an acceptable and potentially workable plot. But the film both fails to convince, and, more fatally, fails to entertain. Though it was a cheap B-movie,1942's Hitler - Dead or Alive worked similar territory and, if nothing else, delivered the goods in terms of entertainment. Bizarrely enough, I kept thinking how this would have been a great plot for Bob Hope (slick-but-dopey host) and Bing Crosby (fast talking producer) back in the day.
I would pin the blame here on two big problems. One is that co-star/co-writer/co-director Seth Rogen probably should have focused in on just one or two of those jobs, rather than trying to (co) shoulder all of them. The script is mostly limp and juvenile, the direction is hit or miss, and as a screen presence, well, he really isn't.

And his co-star, and ostensible star of the film, James Franco, is just not up to the task - especially given the weak script. His character and performance aren't even one-note, so much as half-note. Yes, it's a farce, but there's absolutely no center to his character, and little continuity - he veers from near-imbecile to sex-obsessed man-boy to would-be serious reporter and crusader and back again - which undercuts the whole film. Especially since the script goes too lightly on Kim (in my opinion).
So, while the movie starts off well, with several good laughs, and a great cameo by Eminem, it quickly bogs down into anal penetration jokes and Franco's wildly unentertaining preening. And, once the story moves to North Korea, it also incorporates a great deal of graphic violence and bloodshed that is, at best, an uneasy mix with the would-be wacky comedy surrounding it. Gore and guffaws can be successfully mixed (paging Mr. Robocop), but the filmmakers here clearly aren't up to the task, leaving us with a film that isn't quite action movie fish or buddy comedy fowl. It winds up being the equivalent of someone shouting the none-too-funny punchline to a joke over and over again, hoping you'll laugh this time.
Uh, no.

The only bright spot to come after the post-opening slump is Diana Bang, who plays the prim and proper contact between the North Korean government and the debased American TV people. She manages to nail both the uptight, authoritarian soldier role, as well as one scene of Jennifer Coolidge-scale uninhibited wildness. Not at all believable, however, is her character's supposed instant attraction to the pudgy and deeply unattractive Rogen. Hollywood male wish fulfillment is on full display here, to be sure.
In any case, Bang, like Ann Savage, lives up to her name, and since she seems to have a lot of projects in the pipeline, I look forward to seeing her again.

The same cannot be said of The Interview. I don't regret seeing it, but see no need to repeat the experience. We came, we saw, we (were not) conquered.
Silver Lining Department: Not only has Paul at the Darkside brought in The Interview, but also, starting today, The Babadook (2014) is finally here! This is a film I've been interested in and excited about for months, so we'll be headed back to the Darkside for the first show of that today. I have no doubt it will be much better than The Interview. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Well now...If you know me, or have read my various blogs, then you'll know that two things I'm very interested in are movies and the amazingly dysfunctional twilight zone of North Korea.
So, many, many months ago, when I heard about the movie The Interview (2014), needless to say I was intrigued and, given the plot, somewhat amazed that such a thing had been made. It is perhaps also needless to say that I immediately made a mental note to see it when came out.

Then, before all the Official Revisionist Lackey Malarkey stared spewing out of North Korea, a few early reviews of the film started circulating. Frankly, they did not sound promising. The backwards, bizarro world of North Korea I find disturbing and fascinating; a movie full of male anal anxiety jokes, on the other hand, just sounded like torture. So I started thinking, well, maybe I wouldn't see The Interview when it opened after all.

So now, after Sony caved, the President raved, and indie theaters waved, The Interview is back on track - at least in a small way. It will be playing here tomorrow, and, coming full circle, we're planning to go see it. I in no way believe that by doing so, we're "fighting terrorists on Christmas Day" like a young guy quoted in an AP article about this whole debacle. But at least we can see for ourselves, decide for ourselves, and yes, in some small way, give the finger to Fat Baby Kim Jong Un.
Speaking of which, it's great that I FINALLY have the PERFECT occasion to wear my new Comrade Red Kim Jong Un Fat Baby t-shirt! (See picture below.) Thanks to Paul at the Darkside for making it all possible. You're an unlikely Santa, Paul, but this year you're bringing the presents and then some.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

As a follow up to my previous post...I should mention that the DVD of the Watcher in the Attic was put out by Mondo Macabro, and it contained a whole slew of teasers for other films they've released on video. This trailer reel was so great, my wife and I watched it three times, and took notes of titles we want to try and track down, mainly crazy looking movies from the 1980s made in Indonesia and the Philippines.
With that search in mind, we went down to the library yesterday and, for the first time in a long time, went through their large collection of foreign DVDs. Though I didn't find any of the specific films we're looking for, I did continue my recent run of "Z" movies (I neglected to mention that another DVD I got from Grocery Outlet was the none-too successful "electric western" Zachariah from 1971). I was very pleased to find a copy of William Castle's Zotz! (1962), which, I believe, is the only one of his gimmick-era films that I haven't seen, though I have read the book. And I stumbled across the recent Japanese film, Karate-Robo Zaborgar.

Apparently intended as an homage to the sci-fi transforming robot TV shows of the 1970s, Zaborgar turned out to be pretty delightful, if an acquired taste. Too adult for kids, and too juvenile for adults (in theory), this is the story of a pair of twin brothers. Raised, and nursed, mind you, by their scientist father, one of the boys dies, but is secretly reborn by being exposed to the element "daimonium," which has the property of turning anything it touches into a robot, or some such strangeness. Whatever.

Anyway, the remaining human brother, Daimon, trains in martial arts for ten years, then becomes a crime fighting "secret agent" aided by his robot companion (and brother) Zaborgar, who, in addition to his human form, can also transform into a motorcycle. Together, Daimon and Zaborgar must fight the evil organization Sigma, who are kidnapping the leaders of the world to extract their DNA in order to build a huge, world conquering robot of their own. Unfortunately for Sigma, this process is taking quite a long time, as it turns out.
But the plot is, I think intentionally, pretty silly, and it's not really necessary to follow it in great detail to enjoy this film, which offers much to laugh and marvel at. Action in the first half of the film includes Zaborgar fighting a Diarrhea Robot, as well as a Bulldog Car Robot. Dialogue runs from goofy exposition to goofy expressions of personal angst, such as "I don't want to be a homicidal robot!" 
Then, at the halfway mark, the film jumps to "25 years later," and Daimon is played by a new, older actor. All other returning characters are played by the same actors who played their characters earlier and younger. The leader of Sigma, meanwhile, is still working on his giant robot. It all comes to an end when Daimon and Zaborgar must fight the ultimate weapon of destruction: An immature 20-something woman who is over one hundred stories tall, and talking to her friend Janine on her cellphone - the signal waves from which cause people's heads to explode!

As a menace, it was certainly novel, and a makes for a clear representation of the day-glow, good-natured, good vs. evil silliness of this movie. It has action, robots, robot ninjas, cyborgs, plenty of special effects, martial arts, spy stuff, jokes, drama and tons of colorful costumes and corny music. So, yes, this is a film in which the police officers from the first half of the film become the League of Smiles in the second half - a team of superheroes (without any super powers) who wear insanely bright matching uniforms, and literally launch themselves into the final battle of the film by lighting a fart for propulsion. I told you it was too juvenile for adults, didn't I? Or is that too offensive and adult for children? Whatever.
At any rate, I don't know that I will ever need to see Karate-Robo Zaborgar again, but I certainly did enjoy it last night. The ten year olds and/or cyborgs in your life would probably like it, too. Go, go, Zaborgar!

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Chase is (Sometimes) Better Than the Catch
We're in an age of transition. Movie attendance in the U.S. continues its decades long decline. The sell-through DVD market has also shrunk greatly from its not-so-long-ago heights. Video rental or retail stores are, for all intents, nonexistent. Meanwhile, streaming and bootleg formats for movies are the areas experiencing growth. Kids, literally damning their eyes, are watching movies intended to be seen on the big screen on their cellphones. It may not be the End Times for movies (just yet), but it is a period of instability and change.
I'm not a streaming movie kind of guy. I want to know I can watch a movie even if the internet is down, and without the myriad technological difficulties that these more involved systems can fall victim to. That being the case, I still absolutely love DVDs. They're tangible, dependable, and can come with posters, artwork and extras that can make for a fuller experience of a particular film.
Being that DVDs are cheaper to produce and lighter to ship than VHS tapes ever were, there are still a lot of places that sell DVDs, despite the shrinking market for them. And, given the death of thousands of video stores across the country, used DVDs are cropping up all over the place, too - and not just in thrift stores - often for incredibly low prices.
One of the perks, if you will, of working where I do, is that my walk home takes me right past both a Goodwill and an Arc thrift shop, so I generally check in at these stores multiple times a week. Usually there's nothing of interest to me, but it doesn't cost me anything time-wise to find that out.
Ah, but every so often, persistence pays off, such as the day I found a huge treasure trove of 1940s film noir and 1950s sci-fi that had just been put on the shelf. However, such large scale payoffs are rare.
But it's not unusual to find a couple of films I'm interested in that make for very odd combinations indeed. Such was the case last week, when I came across a still sealed copy of the Academy Award-nominated nature documentary Winged Migration (2001) and a used copy of the Ray Dennis Steckler "classic" The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979). What do these two films have in common? Not much, really, other than that I wanted them both, and they both cost three bucks. (Which is probably close to the full budget for the Steckler movie...)
So now, whatever the virtues or demerits of these individual films, my personal enjoyment of them will forever be enhanced and colored by the fact that I bought them as a sort of double-feature. It made me think about how much the experience of finding a movie, or getting to the point of seeing it, can become part of your personal experience of that film. My epic adventure in getting to see the Bollywood film Mr. Bechara (1996) in Chicago is a great story, though too long to go into here. The epic search my wife and I went through in trying to find the local movie theater in Thimphu, Bhutan is another classic - even though it ends with us not even making it into the theater.
As odd DVDs continue to pop up in odd places, I have come to have a deeper understanding of the full breadth of the potential cinematic experience they offer. Where it used to be that you might come across a crazy great movie you'd never heard of on late night cable, now you might find that movie at the checkout aisle at the grocery store, or at a gas station, or pretty much anywhere, really. Unlike seeing it on TV, if you buy the DVD, that film is now yours, available for you to watch again at any time. You just have to stumble across it.
And that's what happened to me in the last week or so. Our local Grocery Outlet, which is also on my path home from work, acquired a huge stock of used DVDs that had come from a Hollywood video store (or stores) somewhere. They're selling them for $2.99 each - but if you buy one, you get another one for free. Needless to say, the day I discovered these, I was a little late getting home from work.
Not surprisingly, most of the DVDs were fairly modern, and fairly mainstream, even the straight-to-video crap titles. But there were some delightful oddities scattered throughout the bin. I got the Something Weird exploitation double-feature of the Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1968) and The Labyrinth of Sex (1969). I also picked up a couple of Gene Autry westerns. They had multiple copies of the gruesome 1966 mondo "documentary" Africa Blood and Guts (AKA Africa Addio). They also had many, many copies of the Takashi Miike western, Sukiyaki Western Django (2007).

One of the films they only had one copy of was something I had never heard of before, but hey, for a buck and a half I was more than willing to take a chance on something called The Watcher in the Attic (1976). It turns out to be a strange Japanese erotic thriller, based on a short story by the writer Rampo Edogawa (1894-1965). His stories have been made into dozens of movies, and this particular story has been remade several times since this version.
Set in 1920s Tokyo, Watcher centers on a creepy landlord who, just as the title implies, watches his tenants from the attic. Given that this is an erotic thriller, a generous helping of fetish play, death and murder follow, before (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) an earthquake flattens everything.

Is it any good? Well, sure. Is it weird? Yes, but nowhere near as out there insane as some similar Japanese films from that time period. Did I enjoy it? For the most part, yes, though I personally found the recurrent use of clown make-up to be anything but erotic. But as my wife and I watched this old, foreign, sex and violence thriller, I kept remembering that I had gotten this at a down market grocery store. Most of the people who work there would probably die of shame if they knew they had been selling a film like this. This aspect of my experience of The Watcher in the Attic added immeasurably to my enjoyment of the film. No doubt it will make me smile and laugh whenever this particular film comes up.
I think that's a lot of context, a lot of story, to get for a buck and a half. Certainly I more than got my money's worth. Hopefully the chase is not always better than the catch, but if you're lucky, the chase can enhance the catch, making it sweeter and weirder than it would have been otherwise.

When I was a kid, one of the stock phrases used in old science fiction trailers was "keep watching the skies!" Now, while I do still watch the skies, I also keep a pretty keen eye on the shelves, too. You never know what's going to turn up.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

SCARED TO DEATH (1947) - A Review
Where do I even begin? I am really, really fond of this film, bordering on love. But why? Why?

Is it the unbeatable B-movie dream cast, headlined by Bela Lugosi, who is more than supported by George Zucco, Nat Pendleton, Joyce Compton, Douglas Fowley, Molly Lamont and Angelo Rossitto? This is literally a case where the supporting players have taken over the asylum. What a cast!

Is it the fact that this is the only color film that Bela Lugosi starred in? Not, as some misstate, the only color film Bela appeared in. No, this is his only starring role in a color film - and what color it is! Filmed in "Natural Color," this film is anything but natural. Rooms are painted blue, or green, and the whole thing is like a candy coated nightmare. Garish is a good place to start describing the color scheme here. Wow!

Or is it the fact that this movie has a plot, such as it is, that is totally bonkers, thus creating a colorful B-movie miasma of madness that is sure to satisfy those seeking something a little different? This isn't so much campy as it is just plain insane, and it's an insanity that I find irresistible as a viewer.
Without giving too much away, this entire film is a flashback, from the perspective of a corpse (Molly Lamont, as the bizarrely named Laura Van Ee), a gimmick that was later used to open the better known classic Sunset Boulevard (1950). But unlike the later film, this one keeps cutting back to the corpse as a way to transition from scene to scene. It's not really necessary, but again and again we get a shot of Lamont on the slab, and voiceover lines like "A gruesome surprise was in store for me the following morning," or "I became afraid and my mind started to crack," before moving on to the next scene. This constantly repeated refrain makes this a perfect film for a drinking game. Cut to the body on the slab - take a drink! You'd be loaded in no time.

Anyway, given the title, I don't suppose it's giving too much away to reveal that the story, such as it is, revolves around how poor Laura Van Ee wound up being...scared to death. Bela plays a mysterious visitor, with Rossitto as his mute companion. Zucco is Dr. Joseph Van Ee, the head of the sanitarium where all the action takes place, and Lamont's father-in-law. Pendleton is a dumb detective hoping to break a big case. Fowley is a fast-talking reporter hoping to break a big story. Compton is his none-too-bright girlfriend. Add an eerie bluish death mask that keeps popping up at windows to the cast and stir until dizzy. Must I explain that some people here are not what they seem?
Though the cast and color absolutely generate and hold your interest, much credit must go to the script by Walter Abbott - the first of only two scripts that he had produced. Keeping logic and sense at a safe distance, Abbott's dialogue contains some classic howlers. In one scene, after quickly listening to Lamont's heart through a stethoscope, Zucco proclaims, "Her heart's in a very depressed condition. Someone has been giving her orders by mental telepathy." Well, of course. What other explanation could there be?

There's also a truly marvelous moment in which Fowley greets Lamont with the classic, "Welcome to your living room, Mrs. Van Ee." It's a great little weird line in a great little weird movie. I laugh out loud every time I hear it.
But the line that may sum up the appeal of this movie for me comes courtesy of Joyce Compton, who, witnessing all the strange things going on all around her asks, "Is it Halloween?"
Oh yes, yes it is. And I can't imagine that anyone who loves Halloween wouldn't find much to love about Scared to Death. It's certainly in my Top Ten of Crackpot Classics, and it's perfect viewing for this spooky season.
As for poor Bela...Well, just a few years after this, he'd go on to star in yet another Crackpot Classic...

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

DOCTOR X (1932) - A Review
Horror movies? Love 'em! Horror movies from the Golden Age of Hollywood? Even better. Two-Strip Technicolor? One of my favorite "looks" for films - so dreamlike, so uniquely unnatural.
All that being the case, it's no surprise that I love this movie, given that it's a very rare creature indeed - a Golden Age horror film in Two-Strip Technicolor. The fact that it's also got a great cast (Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, Lee Tracy, Preston Foster, Robert Warwick, etc.), a cracked plot and script, and is genuinely weird and creepy in parts only adds to my affection for it. It would seem strange and wrong to make it through October without visiting Doctor X.
This is one of those films where the plot is very much secondary to the mood (and, when first released, to the novelty of color), so it doesn't really matter much that Lee Tracy plays a wisecracking newspaper reporter who is trying to crack the case of the "Moon Murders." He winds up at the institute run by Doctor Xavier (Atwill). Xavier's daughter, Joanne (Wray) also lives there, along with the craziest collection of mad scientist types ever assembled at one location. This movie doesn't just have one or two oddball, suspicious characters - oh no, that would be skimping. At Doctor Xavier's place, pretty much everyone is in full-blown, eyes-bugging loony mode. It's like a whole house full of Dwight Fryes, or a Technicolor Dwain Esper movie.

The creepy, crazy aspects of this film are super-strong, and extremely enjoyable, and fortunately, most of the story focuses on these elements. Unfortunately, in more ways than one, Lee Tracy plays the kind of snappy patter comic relief part that was more suited to, say, Ted Healy. Tracy is a much better actor and comedian than this role calls for, and he is pretty much wasted here. (For the record, I am a big Lee Tracy fan. But this film is, to say the least, disappointing from that perspective.)

In addition to the overall lunatic tone of the entire film, there are also multiple elements of deformity, disability and infirmity. Characters have missing limbs, missing eyes, get around on crutches, etc. And - SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT! - it's the element of deformity that ultimately turns out to be the driving force behind the man/beast committing the "Moon Murders." Though, to be honest, I still am not quite sure exactly why the killer kills people - other than perhaps because he just looks so monstrous.

But never mind. This is 76 minutes of fairly pure cinematic delirium, the real stuff. It starts strong, and builds towards a truly creepy scene near the end in which the killer smears himself with icky pink putty, while muttering about the virtues of "synthetic flesh." It's a scene that I think is still powerful, nightmarish stuff, and I can only imagine how shocking and scary it must have been to audiences with 1930s era sensibilities. And yes, it's all in glorious, unnatural color. As my late criminology professor Doctor Sims would have said: "Outstanding!"
FOOTNOTE: IF there had never been Doctor X, then there would never have been the a-little-too-late non-sequel sequel, The Return of Doctor X (1939). And that probably would have been good news to Humphrey Bogart, who starred in that famous turkey which, by the way, didn't actually feature a character named "Doctor X" at all. But it did allow Bogart to make his one and only, terrible, terrible appearance in a horror movie - an experience he would doubtlessly liked to have avoided.