Saturday, December 20, 2014

Long Good Friday

The Long Good Friday is notable for being the place where the world first noticed Bob Hoskins. This was the place where Hoskins stepped out of the shadows and stepped front and center in to the spot light on the world stage. Yea, Hoskins had been around for years prior to this but was the point where he stopped being that guy and became himself.

The film has Hoskins as a mob boss trying to gain respectability by brokering a real estate deal with some rich Americans. Just as the deal is starting to be finalized some of his men are killed and someone blows up his mother in her car. Hoskins wants revenge, but he has no idea who is behind the acts. However as Hoskins goes through his search for answers he finds his grip on the situation spinning away from him. Things are not what they seem, reasons are not what he expected and his methods end up doing more harm than good.

My overriding memory of the film was seeing it when the film came out during one of the then occasional extended family movie nights and having everyone complaining about the difficulty of understanding the accents. This was a British film where everyone really spoke with their regional accents. I had no real problems, except with Robbie Coltrane, who’s dialog still eludes me)

Beyond the discussion of accents the film stands out for a couple of reasons, first as I said it was the moment where I noticed Hoskins. But it was also the moment, coupled with Excalibur where I noticed Helen Mirren. It was here that I was smitten and she became an object of lust.

The film also stands out as the point where I began to notice the gritty British crime films of the 70’s and the 80’s. There was something about these neatly dressed guys running around the run down England of Thatcher that stuck with me. Of course the film is a kind of allegory on English politics at the time but it wasn’t until later that I noticed the commentary.

Ultimately though this is a damn good thriller. It stands out because what is going on isn’t what you expect people aren’t doing the same old things, there is much more going on- and world beyond the gangsters that comes to bite them on the ass. Whe you see The Long Good Friday, which you should, you’re in no danger of seeing the same old thing.

I like this film a great deal and while I haven’t seen it in ages, It still holds a warm place in my heart.

If yo want something that isn’t your typical crime film see this film.

Friday, December 19, 2014


Seconds unnerves me.

I should probably end the review there because that’s all I really can say about the film, but it doesn’t do the film justice.

Seconds truly unnerves me is probably a better statement. Actually I should add that I never ever want to see it again.

I first heard about John Frankenhiemer’s back in my video store days. We had one customer who was constantly looking for the most obscure, most off the wall films from around the world you ever heard of. He was looking for lost , misplaced and unknown films from around the world. The video store I worked at had eight or so stores and the stock was exchanged between stores so Mr Chapas had us bringing 12 to 15 films a week from other stores, he also had us making calls to see if we could find the films he wanted on VHS tape from our distributors. . If you want to know where by desire to find films came from its from Mr Chapas, who every weekend would take home stacks of films and devour them. Once started waxing poetic about the films I started to take home whatever he had brought to our store.

One of the films that Chapas waxed poetic about was Seconds. The film he assured me was so disturbing that not only did it bomb at the box office, despite starring Rock Hudson, it ended up buried by the studio who refused to ever rerelease it. I never really expected to see it, but one day the film showed up late at night on some out of town cable station. Needless to say I taped it, as did everyone else who had heard the stories about this weird little film.

The plot of the film has John Randolph becoming bored with his life. He desperately wants to get out but doesn’t know how. He’s put in touch with the Seconds corporation. For a fee they will give him a new life with a new look, all he has to do is follow a few simple rules…Randolph jumps at the chance and after a brief procedure he wakes up looking like Rock Hudson. Despite things be great for a while Hudson begins to regret his new life and begins to ponder making another change…but that isn’t allowed.

I hate to say this but I, who loves horror films and disturbing stories, really doesn’t like this film. Its not because it’s bad, rather because the film creates a head space so dark I don’t want to do there. I mean that I don’t want to be there and I’ve only sporadically seen the film again after that first viewing simply to see if the film doesn’t give me the screaming yags. I don’t know what it is that disturbs me, I suppose it’s being set in a world a half step off from our own that does it. I can so see this happening…

I hate the way this film makes me feel which is why it’s a must see for anyone who wants their mind and emotions played with. It’s a truly great film and I never want to see it again Criterion edition or no.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Island of Lost Souls (193-)

What can you say that the film was banned in England for about 40 years doesn’t? If that isn’t a ringing endorsement I don’t know what is.

The dark brooding Island of Lost Souls has been twisting minds for generations. Its also one of the best horror films of the 10.. of to hell with it, its one of the best horror films ever.

Based on HG Wells The Island of Dr Moreau, Lost Souls has a shipwreck survivor arriving on Moreau’s island and encountering the weird beasts that the good doctor has been making in his lab. Of course it all goes wrong soon after. Yea you know the story, its been ripped off and riffed any number of times (there are at least 2 official big screen remakes and probably two hundred unofficial ones) but this is the grand daddy, this is the one that kicks you in the ass and hangs with you.

The film works for any number reasons, the great cast (Charles Laughton and Bela Lugosi), the intelligent script and of course the dark brooding cinematography. Say what you want about the films many pleasures chief amongst them is the dark look of the film. It looks more like a half remembered dream or a nightmare partly revealed in the edges of the darkness. The look seems to be something that we should not be seeing. It warms its way back into the psyche and sits there an pollutes your thoughts for days.

The film is so disturbing it was the last straw for the British authorities who banned the film and then effectively banned horror films by the creation of the horror certificate. They were not going to have those sort of nightmares inflicted on its populous. The result was horror film production around the world, and particularly the US was curtailed since there simply was no market for horror.

Od course time marched on the real world horrors out paced cinemas with the result horror films came back in vogue-though Lost Souls remainded banned at least in England.

I love this movie. Its creepy as all hell and is a must see, especially in Criterions remaster.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


This is more an announcement of a longer piece that is coming- but I've seen BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES.

From the start of the battle to Bilbo and Gandalf parting its as good as the original LOTR series. Finally the film has focus on the plot and characters and not just spectacle. That last bit is as good a bit of filmmaking as I've seen (Its on my best of the year list).

The rest is okay, very messy with much that belongs elsewhere.

The whole series should have been two pared down films

Yes its worth seeing...but realize its not stand alone.

I have much to say once I get through some other life things

On Further Review:The Red Circle (1970)

The Red Circle eludes me.

Several years ago I had been told about this great film The Red Circle about several crooks involved in a heist and the cops who pursued them. It was in the opinion of many one of, if not the best crime film ever made. It was a must see film. The trouble was it was damn near impossible to see in the US, it was like several of its directors films neglected in the US.

In the days before the internet finding a film from overseas could be a real struggle. You’d have to luck into finding it, or scour magazines for collectors who might have an ad or try and talk someone into putting you in contact with a friend of a friend…. It was a hassle and a half. Occasionally you’d luck onto a place like the now defunct Video Search of Miami which had movies from all over the globe. When you’d find a place like that it would open up your horizons wider than you ever thought possible.

It was through Video Search that I obtained a copy of The Red Circle. They came up with a copy a couple of months before the film hit theaters in a restored rerelease. I ordered the copy and as I am prone to do, I sat on the copy for a while. I then pulled the film out one day and started watching it. An hour in I was loving the film so much I stopped it. I knew I was going to be interrupted before the end and I didn’t want to do that so I stopped it, figuring I would go back to it in a day or so with a big box of popcorn and no chance of being interrupted.

Months passed. The theatrical release came…and went. Criterion announced it’s release, and somewhere close to when Criterion putting out it’s special edition came out I grabbed my Video Search DVD, got some popcorn and soda, popped the disc into the DVD player and settled into the film.

A glorious hour passed and I was in heaven…

…and then it all went wrong. This wonderfully crafted crime film of police and criminal cat and mouse devolved into a weird macho tale where characters started to do things because they were men and that’s what men do. It ceased in my eyes to make a great deal of sense. Why did they go through with everything when they knew it was going to end badly? It made no sense to me.  Somewhere in the final hour the film was lost to me.

How could people call this a great film when the plot kind of goes off the rails ? I don't know.

The question of why people regard the film as great has eluded me on the three or four screenings I've had of the film. Yes it looks great, yes it wonderfully acted, but the plot makes no real sense, people don't do the things they do here except in things with literary pretensions.

Don’t get me wrong it’s not a bad film, it’s just not the greatest crime film.

Is it worth seeing? Absolutely, if nothing else the first half of this film is as close to a perfect crime film as you can find. Its just that the second half isn't what it should be. Perhaps if the first half wasn't as good as it is i would have liked it more.

Worth trying, just keep the expectations reined in

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Walker (1987)

If anyone ever wants to derail their career all they need do is take a page out of Alex Cox’s playbook and follow up a cult classic (Repoman) with a head scratcher in your face political film. While that may go over well in some film communities, it’s the kiss of death in the US, more so when you attack the sitting grand poobah. Cox’s Walker confused the hell out of everyone and despite a great deal of talk before it was released in many corners of the film community it sank like a mafia informer with cement shoes.

The film tells the story of William Walker (Ed Harris) who in the middle of the 19th century wandered into Nicaragua, at the behest of several American robber Barons, and took over the country. All was fine for a while until the natives got restless, the support dried up and Walker was left to fend for himself.

Made at a time when the Reagan White House was farting around in Central America, and Nicaragua in particular, Cox went to great lengths to hammer home the parallels between the original American mis-adventure and the then current one. People read Time Magazine with cover stories on Reagan’s incursion, BMW’s drive down the road past horse drawn carriages and modern items and references abound. It makes for jarring viewing that on the first time through can be rather distracting. Yea it’s a bold political move, the cinematic equivalent of speaking in Reagan’s eye, but at the same time the film never connects with the heart and remains a purely intellectual exercise.

Seeing the film back in the day I was amused by the references but pondered why Cox bothered since the Walker story is without the prodding a cautionary tale, more so if you had even the smallest knowledge of the then current events. Seeing the film recently again for the first time in a 5 or so years I was struck by a couple of things. First the political rhetoric is quaint now. Frankly it was quaint when it was made but now, almost 30 years on, it really is quaint. It’s so quaint that you kind of can’t believe adults many years past film school would do. Didn’t they realize it wasn’t going to age well? Yea I know Cox was too pissed to care, but still seriously, the film is dated because of it.

The other thing that is weirdly refreshing is that the film, divorced of the political BS, the film is pretty good. No it’s not perfect but the tory of Walker’s take over a country is pretty good on its own terms.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Song of the Sea (2014)

Lets get to the heart of the matter at the to SONG OF THE SEA is one of the best films of 2014.

Yea it that good.

The big stuff is out of the way so now I can talk about the joys of this great film.

Where to start?

SONG OF THE SEA tells the story of Ben. He's the son of a lighthouse keeper. On the night his sister Saoirse is born his mother disappears. Six years later there is a tension between brother and sister, made worse by her inability to talk and their father refusing to get over the "death" of his wife. A series of events transpire that take Ben and Saoirse far from the sea, thus imperiling not only their lives but the lives of all of the fairies and magical beings in the world since Saoirse is a selkie and until she can sing her song no one will be able to go home again.

Where to begin?

Just like Tomm Moore's first film BOOK OF KELLS, SONG OF THE SEA has it's own unique look. The designs are heavily influenced by Celtic designs but it's also infused with Moore and his teams own style. Think of it as UPA Celtic or some other melding of old and classic (animation) to become something new. I love the playfulness of many of the character designs. Chu the old English Sheep dog is magical as are most of the fairy folk.

At times the images will move you to tears. Never mind that the bittersweet story will break your heart and then heal it, the images alone will have your mouth hanging open as you watch some of the most beautiful images that have ever been put on screen. When Saoirse puts on her coat and goes swimming that first time I had tears streaming down my face- the simple childlike beauty of the selkie and the seals overwhelmed me with emotion.

I love that there is a complexity not only to the art but also to the story. For example there are various motifs through out the film such as circles that repeat  through out the film. There is a twinning of many characters as most really people have a mystical equivalent- the grandmother is the owl witch, the kids father is a grieving giant, the ferry driver is a hairy man where each strand of hair is a story. This is not just a simple quest story there is a great deal  going on.

Moore needs to get a medal for not dumbing things down or not removing the darkness from his films. When I saw BOOK OF KELLS several children screamed at the advancing hordes, He defended the fright to some parents by saying that it wasn't that scary and besides life is like that. Here there isn't quite the blackness, but there is darkness. Grief hangs over the film. The loss of Ben and Saoirse's mother is an open wound. Their father drinks to forget. He does somethings so that history won't repeat- and which have dire consequences. Their grandmother is a bitch on wheels because she sees how the pain has affected the family and thinks she is helping by being stern and taking charge.

Indeed the theme of pain and loss and how we cope and seek to remove it is a thematic thread that runs through the film in ways that no recent American animated film has even dared to hint at. Equally out there is the question of what are we without emotion?

That's heady stuff in an adult film, never mind for one that is going to be sold for kids. That is not a knock only a statement of fact. Its a fact that I applaud since it makes Tomm Moore one of the rare animators in the world who trusts his audience, at what ever age, to be able to engage with what he's doing and not get upset.(Is it any wonder that GKids is releasing it in the US since they are the only company releasing animation I know not to dumb down and trust kids with big issues)

And while I'm at it Tomm Moore is a genius and he needs to stay away from Hollywood because his unique vision should never be corrupted. If he should ever have a film that fails I would rather it be because he misstepped rather than because the corporate bigwigs made changes- I'm sure it would still be ten times more interesting than a Hollywood success. If anyone wants to do the world a favor just give him as much money as he needs and get get the hell out of his way.

While in fairness I have to say that the film isn't perfect, there is one small blip that I won't get into,  I have to add that it's truly one of the best films of 2014. I completely understand why the film is being called the spoiler/wild card regarding the Oscar race for Best Animated Feature by anyone who has seen it because it is that good.

The film begins it's US release December 19 and should be high on everyone's must see list.

Overlord (1975)

(this is a repost and slight revision of an IMDB piece)

In honor of Ken Burns' The War I pulled out the recent DVD release of Stuart Cooper's Overlord to see things from the English perspective Overlord concerns a soldier named Tom from the point at which he leaves home to report for military service to the landing on D-Day. We follow as Tom trains, makes friends and generally waits for his part of the war to start. Shot in black and white to match a great deal of inserted footage from the time this is a soldier's life during wartime English style.

Re-released in the US a year or so ago I remember the reviews being nearly perfect and I looked forward to getting the chance to see this "lost classic". Finally watching the film I'm left wondering what all the shouting has been about. Don't get me wrong, its a good film, its just the great one that some pundits, like Roger Ebert seemed to make it out to be.

Essentially a film about waiting this film is merely a slice of life for the English soldier on the eve of the great invasion. We watch as Tom and his men are shunted around, we see their training, we see footage of the war from the air, and we watch as the men just wait around. There is more to it than that but for me its an 80 minute march to a foregone conclusion. It great to look at with some stunning sequences of old footage (flights over the countryside and air combat) that looked great on the 42 inch TV in the living room, but the film really didn't have much beyond that. Tom the central character and emotional center is too melancholy and morbid (he's certain he's going to die) that the film seems more incredibly sad if not incredibly distant. Why would any one want to be around him when he seems mostly to sulk and brood, even when he's falling in love with a girl he meets at a dance. The film looks stunning and on a technical level its a masterpiece of combining old with new footage.Clearly we are there, but with a central character such as the maudlin Tom Beddoe its not really a place we want to be no matter how good it looks.

A disappointment (its good but not great) thats worth a look.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Nightcap 12/14/14: Christmas recommendations, an award winning short film and Randi's links

If you didn’t realize it Christmas is coming. Actually the whole year-end holiday season is upon us from Chanukah, Christmas, Kwanza, Festivus and New Year (not to mention a whole slew of friends birthdays) are rapidly approaching. This is time of year when we are flooded with holiday movies and specials all aimed at getting us in the mood to deal with our families and friends.

Everyone has their own favorite holiday films and traditions. We at Unseen are no exceptions, we all have favorite films and specials that we watch every year and hold as something special.

For me, a guy who collects Christmas films and music, I have three films I always go back to:

The Bishops Wife with Cary Grant and Loretta Young. To me this holiday tale of an angel come to earth to help a bishop and his wife is my idea od what we are looking for at the holidays, not the material things but the feelings the interaction with friends and family brings. Its also weirdly one of my most spiritual films with something about it clicking into my universal view.

Closer to the way things really are is The Holly and The Ivy. This little British film is about a family full of secrets who come together to not fix everything but begin the healing process. Things are not all better at the end, instead they have been simply deflected into a more hopeful direction.

Albert Finney’s Scrooge is my choice for favorite version of a Christmas Carol. There was something about seeing this at the former Felt Forum (now theater at Madison Square Garden) when I was a kid cinched it for me. I love the music, I love the change in Scrooge. There is something about it that makes me smile.

Weirdly possibly the best representation of Christmas magic comes from the grossly under seen Always Sunset on Third Street-. This Japanese slice of life spawned several sequels. There is a sequence in the film that takes place during Christmas which had me replaying it over and over again when I saw it the first time. It’s a short little bit of a the film but there is such a flash of magic in it that it has stayed with me despite the rest of the film getting jumbled up with the sequels

Earlier this week I sent off an email to the Unseen family and several friends and I asked them what are their choices for Christmas films that people should track down. Here are the responses I got back-

My brother Joe sent me a list of films he loves:

Emmet Otter' Jug Band Christmas and John Denver Christmas with the Muppets.

The Gathering, Ernest Saves Christmas and of course Scrooge. The Bishops Wife and We're No Angels.

And there was always, Freddy The Free Loaders Christmas with Red Skelton. I had never watched it. Then one of the last times it was on I watched it and it was really good and they never showed it again.

The Ref is also a Christmas film.

Hubert chimes in with:

An unsung Rankin & Bass stop-motion film, The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is a Santa origin story in which he was an abandoned child raised by a lioness and a fairy. There's a battle between a Gandalf-looking guy with a magic ax and an army of darkness, and framing narrative that involves a druidic council determining if Santa deserves to be an immortal. Based on an L. Frank Baum novel (yes, that L. Frank Baum), this may be one of the odder and more badass Santa Claus stories around

Matthew Monagle aka Lab Splice columnist at Paracinema, The Daily Grindhouse and various other places seemingly goes off the board but lands on target with:

I know this won't be a popular opinion, but one of my favorite parts of Christmas is sitting down to watch a movie with my parents. For most families, this would mean one-and-a-half iterations of A Christmas Story on TBS. For us, this always meant horror films and Lord of the Rings. My mother is the dominant movie-watcher in my household; when they sit down to watch something, she usually pulls up some new creature feature off Netflix and subjects my dad to ninety minutes of low-budget schlock. The one movie she loves most of all - mostly because of its wonderful first ten minutes - is Ghost Ship, starring Gabriel Byrne and that cocky detective from Dexter. It's not great, but it's beloved in the household, and that means it has a soft spot in my heart. As for my dad? All Lord of the Rings, all the time. The holidays is usually when he embarks upon an epic re-watch of all three extended editions, back-to-back-to-back. Maybe Ghost Ship and LOTR is not the typical Christmas re-watch in your household, but in mine, they're just as festive as mistletoe and gingerbread houses.

Eden makes two recommendations:

Christmas at Pee-Wee's Playhouse: Pee-Wee always embraced a childlike quirkiness in his work, but it's never on bigger display than in Christmas at Pee-Wee's Playhouse. The strange group of celebrity guests stars (everyone from Grace Jones to K.D. Lang to Little Richard) and the kind-hearted lessons taught here feel oddly out-of-time and continue to bring delight more than 25 years later.

Invader Zim: The Most Horrible X-Mas Ever: Invader Zim was one of the weirder things to ever appear on Nickelodeon (let's give the creator best known of a comic called Johnny the Homicidal Maniac his own cartoon for kids!). So, of course any Christmas special was going to ramp up the show's often bleak humor. Zim decides to take over the world by impersonating Santa and things don't quite go as well as he thought (as things tend to do for Zim). It's a playfully dark antidote to the season's usual overt sentimentality.

Joe Bendel of Libertas Film Magazine and JB Spins offers:

For me, Christmas always means one thing: watching Jewish films, because I really start working on NYJFF screeners during the company break between Christmas and New Years. However, if there is one Christmas movie I could re-watch it would be the French serving of Bah Humbug diplomatically translated as SANTA STINKS. I covered it a few years ago when MoMA programmed it and its a thing of shameless beauty:

And I have to ask what are your choices for must see holiday films/specials? Either respond below or email me. If I get responses I’ll post them next week.
The video at the top is from Melanie the daughter of Sam Juliano, one of the minds from Wonders in the Dark and a good friend. The film won the Jersey Filmmaker of Tomorrow Award
And we end with more of Randi's links:

World's coolest movie theaters
A young Jane Fonda gets the heat for a fail Broadway show
Less well loved Altman films on Bluray
Wind creatures
The last Thanksgiving at Joan Rivers apartment
Trying to  locate a lost love of the Holocaust
ugly renaissance babies
Who killed the color of the new Paul Schrader film?
Lets gossip- the leaked Sony Emails
Great movie sequels
Recent torture revelations cast doubt on chunks of Zero Dark Thirty
Is art cinema dead?
Best Superhero movies since Blade?
On the Unbroken controversy in Japan
Every Star Trek episode ranked

Blood For Dracula (1974)

Udo Keir is Dracula in Paul Morrisey's follow up to Flesh for Frankenstein.  Like the earlier film the film carried the Andy Warhol name above the title, but Warhol had nothing really to do with the film.

A political and social satire as well as a "horror" film the movie has the Count leaving his home for Italy because the supply of virgins has dried up and its believed that an endless supply of pure blood will be found in the Catholic country (Dracula will get violently ill if the person isn't a virgin). Things don't go that well for the count who finds not only less pure blood then he thought, but that his plans to drain the few remaining virgins are being thwarted by Marxist Joe Dallesandro as a Brooklyn accented peasant looking to smash the upper classes.

An occasionally clever film, this is one of several films from the early 70's and late 60's that re-imagined vampires in ways that go against the typical image of night crawling beasties ala Bela Lugosi (Jonathan, Nosferatu, Nosferatu in Venice). Here the count does go out in the day, he is not really all powerful, but anemic and sickly.

Better than the earlier Frankenstein film this is still not a particularly good film. The film is stilted with an odd collection of performances and accents. The film's serious musings about class structure and the vampire myths are under cut by the silliness of some scenes (the finale echoes the Black Knight sequence in Monty Python and the Holy Grail, with the addition of the counts lover behaving so stupidly- she literally rolls her eyes like a maniac-that it ruins any satisfaction at the end of the film.) The film does have its moments so its worth a look for horror fans in a forgiving mode since its an influential film of a sort.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

In brief: Fish Tank

Dark tale of a teen in an English housing block and what happens when her mom gets a new boy friend. Actually its her life and what happens. Yes she is drawn to her moms boyfriend and yes things go wrong. Where it goes and how it goes is the story.

I'm at sixes and sevens about it. Its a good film, but its not something that clicked with me. Its a slice of life with a side of ugliness, but really well done. I think my problem is that its the banality of existence a bit too drawn out. Yes we experience the boredom, but its a tough slog, or it was for me.

I admire it more than I like it.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Flesh For Frankenstein (197-)

First of two subversion of the horror genre that were nominally presented by Andy Warhol (The other was Blood for Dracula). This retelling of the Frankenstein story was filmed in 3D which resulted with lots of body parts dripping into the audiences lap.

The plot has the baron and his sister living as husband and wife with their children in a castle. As the good doctor spends his days trying to assemble a super-race his wife runs around with the kids and trying to fill the boredom. As the doctor spends more time in the lab she hires a new servant to help her around the bedroom as well as the house.

A dry re-imaging of the Frankenstein story as a ghoulish TV sitcom and reflection of society the film is full of odd ball lines (including the infamous To Know death one must fuck life through the gall bladder), odd performances (what is heavily Brooklyn accented Joe Dallesandro doing among the East European peasants?), and ridiculing of mad scientist conventions (it really is so silly), that one maybe hard pressed to ever take a similar film seriously ever again. Actually one might have been hard pressed to take the genre seriously had the film been better, but its not. This is a very arch, much too dry, way too knowing film that presents itself as a film that's much too clever.

For years I had feelings toward the film because I took it as a serious horror film (many horror reference books treated it as a more serious endeavor than it is) so when I saw this during the 3D craze of the 1980's I was never sure if it was suppose to be funny or not. The result was I didn't think it was any good. Having the chance to sit down and watch the film on the Criterion DVD (sans 3D) now that I knew it was a satire I gave it another go.

Frankly even knowing the film for what it was intending to be I was bored. Yes it's a beautifully shot film (its one of my favorite looking Frankenstein films ever) and yes its clever in what its trying to do, but at the same time the film is very often an incredible bore. The intentional stiltedness make it hard to watch as performances just come off as bad (I love Udo Keir, but he's terrible here). I admire what its trying to do but at the same time I don't think I need suffer through the film again to get the point of what its doing.

Worth a look for those who want to see influential horror films or great cinematography, all others are advised to stay away.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

The Babadook (2014)

Of all the fears tied up in parenthood, the one that sticks out for me most is the fear that I'll wind up loathing my child. Bundled up in that kid would be all the bitterness and resentment of missed opportunities, and the heartbreaking disappointments--that I failed my child as a parent and a human being, and, selfishly, that the kid failed to have any lovable or redeeming qualities.

These anxieties may explain why I connected with Jennnifer Kent's debut film, The Babadook. Hyped all year since premiering at Sundance and now out in theaters and VOD, The Babadook blends great elements of psychological horror, supernatural horror, and Ozploitation. This is the kind of horror film that creeps and remains because it's not just about the shadow in the corner of the room or the monster hiding under the bed but how these are bleak and potent metaphors for the worst (but maybe also the most human) aspects of ourselves.

At the center of The Babadook is Amelia (Essie Davis) and her son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). On the way to give birth to Samuel, Amelia and her husband were in a car accident that left her a widow. Amelia has since struggled as a single-mother to raise her child, though he'd be more than a handful for even the most patient parent. Samuel crafts homemade weapons to fight imaginary beasts, he's clingy and too attached to allow his mom to sleep alone, and he's just plain weird. Not adorably weird like ugly ducklings, but shouty, bratty, attention-starved and snotty--a kind of hyperactive monster in his own way. The strain in this mother-son relationship gets worse with the appearance of a pop-up book called Mister Babadook, which tells the story of a monster that's coming for them both.

Kent comes at The Babdook with such keen eyes and ears. Compositionally, she and cinematographer Radek Ladczuk know how to get the most dread out of an image. The lighting and negative space in each shot is carefully considered to draw attention and also provoke anticipation. The sound design for The Babadook also stands out, with slight touches--subliminal squeals, thumps, and static--adding as much to the atmosphere as the memorable croak of the film's creature. Kent's studious nods to horror past are seen throughout the film but never in a distracting way, from the look of The Babadook in the pop-up storybook (think Coffin Joe as drawn by Maurice Sendak and Stephen Gammell) to the film's paranoiac dread that recalls The Shining, Repulsion, and Philip Kaufman's Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Yet Kent's careful filmmaking wouldn't work as well as it does without Davis as the lead. It's such an incredible performance full of highs and lows. Throughout, Davis imbues Amelia with such honest vulnerability coupled with palpable rage. Amelia views Samuel as a symbol of the love she lost and the life she can no longer have; all the hurts and griefs of her life are balled up in her odd little boy born on the night her husband died. Kent makes sure that Samuel is shown in his beastliest, shittiest light. She was fortunate to find Wiseman for the film since he's a child who appears adorable in some shots but eerily strange in others. This anger in Amelia is so raw because it's been repressed for so long and only now boiling over, and yet it's so sympathetic because Davis finds the delicate heart in the ugliest of Amelia's emotions.

There are signs of a lesser movie in The Babadook that Kent is smart to set up but then avoid. For one, the audience is allowed to wonder if The Babadook is an actual supernatural bogeyman or a symbolically rich delusion (or both). Lesser films would hold hands and offer explanations. Another lesser film would provide a savior through romance--as if our heroine was in need of a dashing hero to slay the dragon, as if restoring the family unit with a new dad would solve everything. Amelia is obviously smitten with one her nursing home co-workers played by Daniel Henshall (you may remember Henshall for his exceptional performance in Justin Kurzel's grim, grimey 2011 debut The Snowtown Murders), but pat solutions where love conquers all are tossed aside for more meaningful confrontations with monsters.

The Babadook even avoids the banal moral of many lesser movies about parenting: "Being a parent is a tough job." In those films, the parent comes to terms with this lesson, dusts off his or her hands, and then goes merrily about the business of child rearing. Amelia is nervier and sadder, and Samuel is less than an angel or would-be angel, so The Babadook screams out a different and darker observation about Amelia's experiences with parenthood, one that seems more true because it is so unguardedly ugly, and one that most parents probably have at one time or another: "I wish my child had never been born."

On Further Review: Tootsie(1982)

Tootsie is one of those films that captured a moment. It’s a film that hit at the right time and can be seen as the point where a social change happened. It’s a film that marked the point where Bill Murray started doing more than silly comedies. It’s a film that was hailed in its day as a great comedy…however 30 years on I’m not so sure.

The plot of Tootsie has a difficult actor played by Dustin Hoffman having to pretend to be a woman in order to get a role. Of course this causes all sorts of complications, and it changes him for the better.

Sadly that’s about all there is to the film, that’s as deep as it gets. It was a critical and Oscar darling winning Best Picture, acting, writing and directing awards. Other than Jessica Lange’s Oscar I don’t think it really deserved any of them. I mean let’s face it Hoffman’s win was because he put on a dress and kissed a man, daring things at the time. (I mean how many Oscars have been won for roles that went against type or something daring?)

While the film does have some things to say about men and women, most of the film is a sitcom.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Thoughts on Jingle Bell Rocks! (2014)

During DOC NYC, Steve noted that Mitchell Kezin's documentary Jingle Bell Rocks! was one of the can't miss movies of the festival. Kezin's film is a charming look at Christmas music fanatics, record collectors, and the people responsible for some beloved and lesser-known Christmas songs. The film's now available on DVD and VOD, and can be seen at select screenings throughout the United States thanks to the people at Oscilloscope.

One of the fascinating aspects of Jingle Bell Rocks! is its focus on the collector's hoarding urge, and yet the film eschews many Christmas standards--"Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" and "Silent Night" are too obvious, "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" gets unexplored, and ditto the perennial favorite A Christmas Gift for You from Phil Spector. (Jingle Bell Rocks! doesn't even mention "Jingle Bell Rock," as far as I recall.) And yet that's a part of the joy. The collector impulse is sometimes about eclecticism and rarity over mere completism; hidden gems, intriguing also-rans, the sort of songs and records that make an impression now because they are viewed as artifacts rather than clutter. It's more than just rediscovering Christmas music, it's a kind of obsessive cultural archaeology, with many songs tied to their time and cultural events, like Vietnam and the Civil Rights Movement.

The thrill of the hunt fuels several segments in the film, where collectors sift through bins at thrift shops, yard sales, and record conventions in search of oddball and forgotten Christmas music. Christmas music sometimes gets categorized under children's music. It's as if in the world of music sales the whole genre of Christmas music is the sonic equivalent of the Island of Misfit Toys. That may be why the most raggedy and silly-looking Christmas songs get bought by collectors, though there's also a kind of unbridled earnestness in Christmas music that cuts through the veneer of kitsch. It's the magic of Christmas (and kitschiness) that helps otherwise crummy songs become their own wonderful misfit things. (Thanks to Jingle Bell Rocks!, "Santa Came On a Nuclear Missile" from The American Song-Poem Christmas anthology is now a personal favorite.)

There's also another important aspect to Jingle Bell Rocks!: music curation. Bill Adler, music journalist and former publicist for Def Jam, is one of the central focuses of the documentary because of Christmas Jollies, his annual Christmas mix-tape/compilation. John Waters also makes an appearance to talk about his Christmas compilation and how it ties into the Baltimore he grew up in. The creation and sequencing of a mix can be serious business, and part of the joy of the mix is showcasing rare finds by unheard artists and sharing them with others. Good mixes are like presents, and they're also potentially biographical or autobiographical, and with each song and song-transition there may be a personal message or hint of meaning or a story about how this track was found and first heard.

Kezin's filmmaking and structure for Jingle Bell Rocks! merges the eclectic obsessiveness of music collection and the personal narrative of mix-tape-making. Rather than attempting comprehensiveness, Kezin discloses his personal attachment to songs, and why they mean what they mean to him. It's pretext to explore certain artists and figures who wrote the Christmas music he loves and to then learn the stories embedded in the songs they wrote. During a DOC NYC Q&A, Kezin noted that he tried to interview James Brown, likely for the glory that is James Brown's Funky Christmas, one of the best Christmas records ever made (fact, not opinion). Brown sadly passed away before Kezin had a chance to speak with him.

Jingle Bell Rocks! is amoeba-like in shape. While Kezin's own attachment to Christmas music is the throughline, the personal journey takes various sidetrips to its conclusion, and some of them are more intriguing than others. Yet there's still a glee about the whole film, like Kezin is giving a tour of his own personal Christmas record collection and talking you through some of his favorite possessions. It may be best to think of Kezin's documentary as a kind of themed mix-tape with extensive liner notes, ones written by many and that take the form of an oral history--a Christmas gift to you from Mitchell Kezin.

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