Wednesday, April 1, 2015

A Grindhouse Memory: The Final Battles of the Human Hatchet (1977)

The popcorn was your lunch, that was how you planned it.

I’m speaking for those of us of a certain age who’d sneak away from our unexceptional teenage lives to take in a quadruple-feature in a dubious part of the big city, a blurred spectacle that would pummel us equally with depraved thrills and unexpected beauty. Back then, of course, there was no themed cable television or online media—you couldn’t subject yourself to marathon sessions of watching whatever turned you on without first making an actual pilgrimage. In the process you’d trade in your safe, bright, private home for one that offered a very public form of privacy, the houselights always set at a sickly semi-dim, a space that was never not knee-deep in grubbiness, full of slumped figures in seats snoring boozily through sprays of blood and splashes of widescreen nudity. You’d never know whether to pity them or fear them, these fellow audience members, lest they wake in a sudden incoherent rage, but it didn’t matter anyway because, above all, you were there to ignore each other. You’d enter at 11-something in the morning, stagger out at six-something, and if it was the summer, you’d be amazed that it was still light out (after a day of gloom), and if it was winter, you’d be amazed at the gentle darkness of the early evening (after a day packed with too-bright colors, with explosions of fire and flesh). Earlier, during the breaks between features, you’d take the measure of your own temporal disorientation by trying to recall what you’d seen two movies ago, and usually the answer wouldn’t come immediately—cognitively, you had joined the great haze of the half-hidden and the half-forbidden while, outside, in the world beyond the exit doors, real life slipped by unperturbed, as if on gliding silver casters. Time never seems to care that we waste so much of it.  

Years and years later we’d meet, this murk-enamored army of the once-young who could recall the grindhouses, and talk would inevitably run to favorite trailers and one-sheets; and, just as inevitably, the comment would arise, and find no objection, that theses previews and posters were always far, far better than the product they promoted. That’s true with most films, I suppose, but in these cases we were dealing with artifacts both more endearing and more misleading, the former true not despite, but because, of the latter. The advertising images were bolder, somehow more mythic for the way the films were condensed down to their essence—a steely look given and zoomed in upon, a battle cry, a driving musical signature over a montage of impossible stunts. Block letters and exclamation points blazing out of the screen at you. Voice-overs that took these movies extremely seriously and dared you to do otherwise; and the more absurd, the more transparently pandering, the more seriously still.

That said, there was a handful of times when this maxim didn’t hold, when what was delivered exceeded in every way what had been promised. And for me the most memorable of those times involved The Final Battles of The Human Hatchet (1977), aka The Final Battle of The Human Hatchet, aka simply The Human Hatchet.
Kung fu (or wuxia) movies of this period often incorporated elements of the grotesque and the baroquely cruel, and I’m not sure if that’s because the practice made for good business at the Asian box office, or because it so nicely fit the export market, where they could share a bill with homegrown exploitation flicks and not miss a beat. With The Human Hatchet, however, there was a big difference—here we had a proven director (Huang Feng, not that we tracked Hong Kong filmmakers in those days—if we had, we might have marveled that this was one of his three releases in that single year) and in addition, a topnotch star, Gordon Liu, shortly before he astonished
all of us with the classic 36th Chamber of Shaolin.
The appeal of many of the HK films of this era (not to mention countless Westerns, chanbara flicks wherein a ronin grudgingly rises to the call of honor, a million cop B-movies in which the protagonist is called out of retirement—or is about to retire and feels there’s no need to risk his comfortable future) concerns the importance of a reluctant hero. More precisely, a “damaged hero”—damaged by reputation, by physical injury, by age alone, by emotional scars, or some combination of these. The key is a form of incapacity—because that’s how so many of us saw ourselves, and maybe still do. Tomorrow we would wake from our slumber and find a better job, or any job, or be motivated to go to school, or just do some homework, or go on a date, or exercise—we were, in the meantime, intentionally lying dormant, that’s how the fantasy goes, waiting for the moment we’d supernova out of our half-lives and onto some grander stage of participation. That way, the longer we stayed inactive, with only sufficient agency to make our way into these caves of wonder and violence, the more volcanic would be our eventual eruption into the mainstream of humanhood.

Yes, I’m rambling now, I realize that. The point is that there was a tacit agreement back then between us cave-dwellers to keep any and all interaction between us to an absolute minimum. You’d use the imaginary as an intermediary, a gauzy, ephemeral sounding board—you’d laugh at what someone said three rows over, but you’d never meet, never acknowledge each other in ways that involved anything beyond staring straight ahead at the fiery things before you.

Which is why, as I’ll come to explain, The Human Hatchet was so remarkable, or at least my experience of it was (a distinction I feel compelled to make even though it’s pointless, ultimately). That and the fact that this was a movie that more than made good on the gaudy promises of its trailer, which I recalled vividly from a week or two previously—and so provided me with my very first sensation, and probably one of my last, of the state of grace. I don’t deserve this, I remember thinking. Maybe none of us do.

“Yes… This Is The One!” the trailer had announced breathlessly.

The letters arrived one by one rapidly from left to right, apparently writing themselves by virtue of your reading them. Under them, a close shot of a hatchet lodging in wood, the chunk sound underscoring the text, its single syllable pairing nicely with any of the single-syllable words on the screen. (Slouched down in my seat, I let the on-screen boast slip past my guard—then questioned it, even back then:  what was meant by “the one”? Didn’t the copywriter responsible for this know that my eyes and ears had an appetite that was all about quantity, that I was slowly amassing a vast topography of the imaginary by taking in any and all items of sufficient power and dazzle? Or was I wrong, had I really been waiting for one special cinematic story, some kind of messianic opus that would provoke a personal transformation, and had simply not realized it? Well, maybe, in a sense, I had been waiting for this kind of singular arrival, just so that now, decades later, I could recount it for you.)

“The Picture That Everyone is Talking About—”

Behind these words, and then eventually replacing them as the letters were wiped off the right side of the screen, there’s a provincial governor holding court; these trailers always included such shots, offering proof of production values as if production values mattered much to us. The governor, unidentified as such in the trailer, has the air of a warlord about him, imperious and grave with his elegant and precise facial hair, his grooming a kind of aesthetic weapon at his disposal. He speaks a line of self-serving pseudo-Confucianism—we know not to whom because of how things have been edited: “Knowing our place in life is what brings peace. Not knowing our place brings… war!” (Meanwhile, my place in life, at least for this specific moment and many like it, was all too clear to me. I was in my hibernation spot—I’d checked out the surroundings upon first entering the theater and monitored them at regular intervals as the long matinee hours marched dreamily on. I fortified my position by slumping and covering, by making myself at one with the surroundings, a process that was not free of challenges. Were the armrests acceptable as surfaces upon which I could lay my elbows and triceps? If not, I didn’t depart; rather, I'd let the sleeves of my coat drape over them, shielding my shirt or sweater from actual contact. The paramount rule, however, was never ever to let one’s fingertips stray to the lip of an armrest and beyond, so that they might come in contact with what could lie beneath. This was how you inoculated yourself against the slyly encroaching suspicion that you were part of the filth.)

“—And Soon You Will Be, Too!”

The cut on “war” brings us a glimpse of a full-on battle scene, with spear-toting guards going up against peasants and assorted villagers armed with pitchforks and other farm implements, the two groups collapsing upon each other in the center of the screen, the first casualty being the empty space that existed briefly before the clash. Which means that if you’re keeping score, so far we’ve had a glimpse of the budget and a sense of spectacle—all within ten seconds or so. Still not much to write home about it, but the trailer, it turns out, is merely getting these checklist items out of the way before proceeding to the heart of the matter. (At first there would appear to be an unintended lie in the trailer’s assertion—I most definitely would not be talking to anyone about this or any similar film. The kids at school? They had no sense of this—well, this world. They were busy gravitating to Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever, and I don’t fault them for that. Besides, there really was no relevant discourse at all, anywhere, except perhaps a few hand-stapled zines scattered across the country, some capsule reviews in the Cantonese language dailies, or box office stats buried somewhere in the back of Variety. This was culture without conversation. You would think, then, that when a new century later dawned and it seemed that everyone alive was thinking and commenting about pop culture, I’d have welcomed the company, but by then I was already accelerating in the opposite direction, longing to be silent and sparing after years of chatter.)

“Just Who Is the Human Hatchet…?”

A quick, satisfying shot of a hatchet blade cutting through the staff of three spears in one circular motion. Then the camera pulls back and we see, at last, (I know: but “at last” is what it feels like though we’re now only about fifteen seconds in) the title character, wild-eyed and, surprisingly (if you know the actor), with hair similarly wild. Liu has short-handled hatchets where both hands should be, and long, somewhat tattered sleeves conveniently covering fake stumps—it’s the old “taped-over fists” visual that was a staple in all the eras prior to when CGI enabled filmmakers simply to delete flesh. We’re all aware the actor is still intact, but we’re okay with equating the invisible with the absent because that’s the way this whole thing works. We let ourselves be fooled, and fooling us is what occurs from before the get-go: all of the posters and key art that promoted the film presented an image that is not remotely in the film—Tian Gao bare-chested and sans hands. Some graphic designer was ordered to gild the lily, and moviegoers fell in line.

More importantly, at least in terms of cinema history, this was years before Evil Dead II and Edward Scissorhands leveraged similar ideas about missing appendages. (Forgive the aside, but the premise of the latter always seemed a little dumb to me. Why would Vincent Price’s character have fabricated the hands last? Would you really make sure your creation had clothes, but not the means to take them on and off? It’s a conceit that makes sense only on the level of psychoanalytic male adolescence.) As you watched the trailer, you immediately wanted to know how he acquired these skills, these unique weapons—did he train like this, specializing in what seems to be a new fighting style? Was he a member of a temple of devotees/amputees? The trailer, however, was concerned with bigger issues, ones of identity, as evidenced by the rapid-fire array of options that followed in answer to the question it had just posed… (Much of what was exhibited in the cave was inane: that was a given. So it took special circumstances to prompt us to express our reaction to additional stupidity. I did it, too; not at first, and never the first one to do so while any given film screened, but, yes, I’d contribute. I had to be careful for my voice was distinctive, not like the others in attendance. And I’d keep it brief, words that were short and declarative. You see, you’d have to yell back at the screen once in a while, for good measure, to show you were not above doing so… to prove it to yourself, that is—no one else was likely noting your behavior. The practice of reacting out loud like this also kept you from going too far and too completely into the self-contained realms inside your head. Again: We talked to each other by shouting at the screen.)


And now the first shock of the trailer: Tian Gao, cleaned up, on horseback, in armor and imperial helmet, but more importantly—with both hands. He barks a phrase that seems to contain no words, charges along a narrow mountain pass, leaps from his steed to protect the governor’s litter with his own person. From higher up on the sides of a sand-colored canyon, against which the indigos and emeralds of the governor’s escort stand out like targets, a dust-covered but better camouflaged troop of unidentified enemies pushes rocks and boulders down, trying to force the litter off the road and take a fatal plunge. But Gao, with inhuman ferocity and power, is kicking, punching, and somehow guiding the rocks as they tumble down; on the ground near him are corpses in lighter armor—bodyguards who have apparently already sacrificed themselves. One of the attackers from above, disheveled, and as wild-eyed as we saw Liu with his hatchet-hands a moment ago, something painfully desperate about him, screams, “His hands are indestructible!”—and we cut.

What the trailer doesn’t have time to explain but which blossoms narratively up out of such ingredients is the fact that we first encounter Gao as the popular leader of the local imperial regiment; popular because he grew up in the area, popular also because he is simply likable: decent, honest, smart. Additionally the trailer does not bother, nor should it, with the connective plot tissue: that, as a result of warding off the attack shown, he receives an unheard-of double promotion (which in terms of the class system makes no sense whatsoever), both to special adviser to the governor and to a member of his personal guard (which just lost a few members, you’ll recall). In the movie we learn that the attack was launched by a ragtag group of rebel peasants, their agenda nebulous except that their hostility is directed against the governor himself, not the office he holds nor the political status quo more broadly.

In an unusual role in that it downplays his martial arts skills until the final reel, the governor is played by the wonderful and reliable Lung Wei Wang (aka Johnny Wang), here not quite so artificially aged as he is in other roles, with only single strands of grey/white mixed in with his jet black hair, not the usual full-on snow-white get-up. The idea is that the actor’s youth (in real life he was not yet thirty) is here used to a subtle thematic effect: he is meant to seem too young to be in such a position of power, which in turn means that perhaps he is far older and by some means only manages to appear much younger. “Those filth who died,” he says of the rebel dead, “—dump them in the pit.” He commands this in an off-handed tone, as if it’s standard operating procedure. After the bodies are burned, he’s shown gathering the ashes by moonlight, scattering drops of some mysterious oil upon them… and then re-burning them, chanting something that we cannot make out and which may not be in any known language. In a later scene that takes place in his inner sanctum he is inhaling deeply of a dense, black smoke, and the implication is that he has made a form of incense out of his enemies. Incidentally, these include the fellow who yelled the bit about Gao’s hands, a farmer whose brother later joins Gao when he becomes an insurrectionist; it is a decision-making moment drawn out both for suspense (will he attempt to avenge his brother instead?) and emotional drama: can there be forgiveness in the service of fighting evil? Well, yes, evidently there can be, and yes, this is political theory based on sentimentality, one of popular cinema’s most prevalent modes.


“Tian Gao, you are a traitor!”—this from a former comrade-in-arms poised on a rooftop in the governor’s compound, and it is the first time the trailer speaks our protagonist’s name aloud. Behind the outraged fellow are swordsmen—the elite guard to which Gao had been promoted earlier. It’s a rooftop that looks vaguely familiar from other period pictures from the same studio, the kind of rooftop from which people are always leaping up to and flying down from, their loose clothes billowing in vertical winds. In the movie this irate member of the guard adds, “We should have killed you when we could!” but here the dialogue is cut short by the action that immediately follows: he launches a terrific kick from the top of this two-story building while below Gao lunges forward and takes out a support beam with a criss-crossing blow from his two hatchets, and that entire section of the roof collapses. Guards in indigo and emerald fill the air; their swords fall separately. The kicker lands too distantly: where Gao had been. He turns, his sword leading the way, and Gao, now classically bald again, now a disciplined warrior but for the other side, delivers the same sort of criss-crossing strike, hitting the blade at two different points, and, instead of shattering it, bends it into an impotent curve. The effect is comical, accented by how the swordsman is gazing at the weapon in his hand, with a genuinely puzzled and slightly moronic sort of fascination. (I am making it up if I say that in this point in the trailer all of us sat up straighter and took notice; that’s how things should have been, how we should have reacted—and in memory I have revised it so that that is indeed what happened.  To be clear, the strident tone of nostalgia you may detect in everything I express is not due to my belief that the past was any more enjoyable than the present; it’s just that the memories are more malleable than anything else we can experience. It’s easy, for example, to drop out the anxiety—the dread from which the movies provided a consistent escape, and to recall only the escape itself. Thus we fix our own lives in post, get them to conform to whatever narrative we are currently telling: it’s not the story we tell ourselves that shapes our lives, but the story we tell ourselves about the story.)

The trailer, and this was back when trailers were gloriously achronological (unlike most of today’s), then shifts to an earlier point in the film: “So, Gao has joined the rebels’ cause now?” the governor muses. “Every man must serve a master, so I should not be surprised”—yes, there is foreshadowing taking place here, before the picture has even been released—“Very well, then,” he continues. “It is with heavy regret [sic] that you have my permission” —and there’s a sudden zoom in on him as he stands up (for no reason that we can see):  “—to kill him!”

What’s omitted in the trailer, naturally, is the entirety of the governor’s speech, which sports that same over-the-counter strength version of Confucianism noted earlier mixed liberally with Western-style social Darwinism; after remarking that he should not be surprised by Gao's treachery, he observes: “I serve only at the pleasure of the Qing. The Qing serve only at the pleasure of the gods, while the gods serve at the pleasure of the Tao. And the Tao serves all, if we allow it.” Pause. Then he says “Very well...” In short, where the trailer makes the ostensible villain seem decisive and remorseless, in the actual film he seems far more reflective, reaching his decision almost reluctantly; in fact, it’s as if he is not talking about Gao anymore but about himself—that is, if he were totally free and not in the service of a specific political structure and metaphysical scheme, he himself might arrive at a different decision. So we feel for the governor, as vile as he may seem, and this is true even if we realize how the cinematic moment is manipulating us: that’s the amoral beauty of the movies.

[...thanks so much for reading this far, but I'm afraid I may have overstayed my welcome; so please stay tuned for the literally unbelievable ending of The Human Hatchet in a follow-up post. -Peter]

Remembering Lou Macaluso

If you've read Unseen for any amount of time you've heard me talk about my friend Lou. Lou was one of my two best friends in the world, my longest surviving friend (30 plus years) and one hell of a guy.  Earlier today I received word that Lou had passed on. The original plan for today was to post a piece on home video and a long lost half remembered movie serial but instead I'm going to remember my friend Lou.

I met Lou when I worked at Video Quest back in the 1980's. He was a customer and I was the guy behind the counter. Somewhere along the way a conversation about film started that lasted three decades.

At first we'd talk in the store about films. Eventually we talked on the phone for hours and then we started to go to films. The first one we ever went to was CAMILLE CLAUDEL staring Isabelle Adjani it was all down hill from there.

Lou drove us both to our first New York Film Festival to see Peter Greenaway appear with PROSPERO'S BOOKS. A couple of years back he went with me to the Park Avenue Armory to see Greenaway speak and to see his Sistine Chapel installation.

Other memories of the New York Film Festival with Lou include the above picture taken between seeing LAWRENCE OF ARABIA and HYDE PARK ON HUDSON. We sat outside Alice Tully Hall and ate food from the halal cart that seems rooted there. Another was going to see Oliver Stone present his History of the United States series.

Mostly it was long conversations about films and trading films on VHS or DVD. Making crazed calls to each other to see if we were home so that we could drop off a great film we just saw - the two that pop right to mind are OLD BOY and OPEN RANGE. Both of those films rocked his world and became touchstones that he'd revisit and we'd discuss endlessly. Even as Lou got sick over the last two years the exchanges kept up so long as he was home.

As a person Lou was a pip. One of the most well read, most intelligent people I've ever met he knew more than most college professors.He could discuss philosophy for days, and had a keen interest in Buddhism. He was in many ways a walking encyclopedia. He could be incredibly generous and giving...

...and he could be a real SOB when angry or frightened. Our friendship of thirty years fractured back in December when Lou's illness kept him in the hospital and out of his comfort zone. He fired broadsides at every one and every thing, including myself. I walked away. This isn't to lessen Lou, its only to say he could be difficult.  Hell I love the guy deeply. His friend Rich and I had some conversations recently about my returning to the fold. I hadn't spoken to Lou in three months (that's forever considering Lou and I spoke pretty much every day for the previous thirty years). I wanted to reconnect, but I wasn't sure it was possible,

Sadly it wasn't to be. Lou passed away a few days ago.

While I am sad at the loss, he went out in the home he loved (he said the only way he would ever leave was when he died) surrounded by the things he loved. I'd love to think that somewhere in the great beyond he's talking to Orson Welles or perhaps trading pith helemts wit Captain Spaulding, Groucho Marx.

On the other hand maybe he's sitting in a comfy chair stoogie in  hand as he finally makes it to the end of the Sherlock Holmes film THE HOUSE OF FEAR,-a film so comfortable to him that  he'd fall asleep as before the narration ended. " a grim old house pitched high on a cliff...."

Sleep well my friend sleep well.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

a few words on Annie (2014)

Misfired remake of the beloved Broadway classic updates everything to not very good effect.

The film updates the story and has Annie as a cute little orphan who gets picked up by Jamie Foxx as a super rich New York Mayoral candidate needing a bump up in the polls. The ploy works and while Annie thinks she may have found a home Foxx and his crew are only thinking short term. However love comes in unexpected places and soon Foxx is acting as a surrogate father.

Beginning with a throw away piece that that takes the piss out of the original show, the film then moves ahead at breakneck speed through the story but without much weight. The characters are given things to do to move the story long but very little to move the heart. These aren't characters but cardboard cut-outs.

The re-scored songs are very good, I just kind of wish the dance numbers actually amounted to something more than looking like people stumbling around.

The performances are okay considering the weak script but Cameron Diaz is genuinely terrible.

Its not awful enough to be considered a bad film, but its not good enough to be worth bothering with.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Exodus:Gods and Men (2014)

Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings is a wildly uneven film. Like most of the theatrical cuts of the director recent epics it feels as though it was cut down from something longer.

The film is the story of Moses and the Exodus. It begins with an adult Moses living into the Pharaoh’s court. He’s not content to let things follow their natural course but he wants to know about the Hebrew slaves. When a prophecy and an unfortunate killing make Moses’s place untenable he his sent into exile. There he finds a wife, meets god and is set on the path of freeing his people.

A more realistic look at the story when compared to the legendary Hollywood versions, the film is weird mix of the amazing , the mundane and the just plain awful.

The awful comes in the hideously miscast Sigourney Weaver who wanders in and out of a couple of scenes with an attitude and vocal performance that seems to have been shipped in from another century. She’s so out of place as to end up giving a bad performance. If she was in some board room somewhere she’d have been fine but not in ancient Egypt

The mundane is much of the sequences with the Pharaohs. They are kind of bland and unremarkable. They are there because they are part of the story but at the same time you feel that the writers had no clue what to do with the sequences. They are forced exposition and not organically part of the film. The other problem is that the film goes on a couple of minutes too long. While I understand why we see the final image, the film is effectively over when Moses rejoins his wife.

The amazing is the sequences with Christian Bale as Moses. While he may not be what you think of as Moses, he’s a very human one. He’s vulnerable and heroic. He’s the sort of guy one would follow. For me he’s emotionally perfect. What I like about the film is that it does feel real. Moses’s wife really seems to love him and seems to come from a real culture and place. The plagues when they happen are natural events Why they occur make perfect sense “scientifically”. They are not just acts of god, but god manipulating the real world logically. Actually most of what happens is real world logical which helps carry the day.

This is a really good film. Is it perfect, no, but it is surprisingly entertaining. Definitely worth a look.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Nightcap 3/29/15 A Woody Allen book, What I learned from interviewing Bill Corbett, and Randi's links

Life isn't sound bites. Thats how I feel about our work,its complex & the ideas we covey need a bit of explanation,need a bit of depth and passion- Julian Richings in a post interview comment

As we begin to disappear in to Tribeca-land I'm going to clean up some loose ends.

A while back I got a copy of Alex Sheremet's WOODY ALLEN; REEL TO REAL. I read it and I sent it off to Ken to review.  Ken's full review is coming soon, but I wanted to get my two sense in.

Shermet's book is one hell of an undertaking.  Not only is it a review of everything that Woody Allen has done film-wise, it's also an on going dialog with everyone who has written on Woody Allen and anyone who reads the book (Shermet is going to update the book with online conversations and critical pieces.) To be honest I've never seen anyone ever try to do this sort of an under taking on any subject. Its kind of crazy and completely amazing.

Because I read the book for fun and not for review I can't really go into detail but I'm sure I'm not the first person to suggest that the book could be called EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT WOODY ALLEN, because it is. Shermet goes into detail on everyone of Allen's films and film appearances and takes them apart. He also creates a dialog with everyone who has ever written on Allen. Old critics mingle with new critics. While I'm used to people I know and go to press screenings with ending up mentioned in the odd article, I found it very weird to see people I know mentioned every couple of chapters. Shermet told me that it was important to include what people think of Allen now in the book as well as all through his career, so it makes sense that on-line critics fill many pages.

As a long time Woody Allen fan I'm both thrilled by the book and overwhelmed. Frankly it's just too damn much. Shermet's review of Allen's career leaves nothing out and after a while I needed to step away. Actually I did it several times, not because it was bad but because it was like gorging myself on candies- too much good stuff.

If you're a fan of Woody Allen or want to see how exhaustive an review of a directors work can be get Shermet's book.

The film is available for download from Amazon
Tuesday I did an interview with Bill Corbett from Riff Trax and MST3K and it made my week and Tribeca Film Festival, He was great person to talk to and at some point I’d love to talk about his time in the theater and comics and life. It was really cool (thank you again Mr Corbett)

In doing the interview I suddenly understood a great deal about how to do an interview

Why do people ask the same questions when doing interviews? Because a lot of times there is limited time so the well-worn questions are the ones asked.

Additionally since the interviews tend to be about a project you can’t go too far afield. Half way into talking to Mr Corbett I suddenly realized that I had to stay on point or close to it. I couldn’t go off track because there wasn’t time.

Also when you do a short interview you can’t go too far afield lest the piece sound scattershot. Yes you can follow the through line but ou can’t suddenly turn left and get silly in a serious conversation of completely jump subjects. I had theater and comics questions ready but realized I couldn’t go there at that point. Yes we did talk about Ben Franklin and farting but that was at the end and was a semi-throw away.

In the process of doing the interview I suddenly understood how to do an interview. I have no idea why I should suddenly learn how to do it, I mean I've done a whole bunch of interviews before, but for some how I understood what makes a good interview,

Thank you Bill for that.

The interview, minus the Ben Franklin farts bit, will run in about two weeks just in time to lead our Tribeca Film Festival coverage
And now Randi's links

Irish animation stamps
The Book of Mojo
How to catch a liar
All the Walt Disney Pictures logos
Private Snafu

Over the next two weeks look for lots of recent films to be reviewed. I've been sitting on a bunch of reviews of films from the last few months and I'm going to dump them in the run up to Tribeca. Additionally look for some new releases to be reviewed. Additionally Eden has seen DIOR AND I and will be chiming in closer to the theatrical release.

You may also want to be sure to keep an eye out on our Twitter feed since Hubert and myself are hip deep in the Tribeca pre-fest screening so you never know if a stray comment may slip out about the festival

Legend of the Knight (2014)

Legend of the Knight disappoints.

When I saw the trailer for the film, which charts the way that the Batman character has influenced and help people achieve great things, I was moved to tears. I had to track the film down. Since the film hadn’t yet been released on DVD and was in the process of screening across the country I was going to have to wait a couple of weeks to see it. Then I lucked out and ran across the film at New York Comic Con and picked up a copy.

Waiting for the perfect time to see the film I held on to the DVD until New Year’s when I sat down to watch the film.

Sadly it wasn’t worth the wait.

The film is takes a look at various people who have found strength in the Batman character. We have people who dress as Batman to entertain kids, handicapped people who find strength in Batman’s regular joe who made himself a hero, kids who find strength to face the world, the mythic context of the character and we also see the man who produced all the Batman films and Batman writer Denny O’Neil.

Its good stuff – or would be if we hadn’t seen all of it before elsewhere. The feel good stories have largely been on the various TV news shows, the talk of comics as myth are the sort of discussions that the vast majority of comic readers have had before. The film is also a bit too filled with too many kids standing in batman masks and capes. By the 35th time it’s like get one with it.

The one saving grace is the fleeting appearance of Denny O’Neil talking about the character and what it means to be the keeper of the myth. Its pointed. Moving and good enough you’ll want a whole film of the man talking about comics.

Ultimately the problem with the film is that the film doesn’t live up to the trailer. Yea I know most films don’t but the film additionally offers nothing that is new for a comic fan-or even one that watchs the news. Its good but unremarkable.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

peacock fan (1929)

Familiar and off beat mix in the Peacock Fan a murder mystery about a rich man who dies not long after getting the title item. As the police seem stumped a friend of the dead man who was to explain the fan’s cursed history takes control of the investigation.

Your typical murder mystery among the rich story is enlivened by one hell of a detective. A refined European aire hangs about Lucien Prival as Dr Dorfman who swings into action to find a killer. The choice of detective adds 57 bonus points to what is a largely run of the mill story. I mean when was the last time you saw a detective with a monocle and such a refined attitude? Never.

When trying to find out about the film I was reading a comment on IMDB that suggested that the film may have been filmed as sound film that was released as a silent, either just as a silent (how I saw it)or in both versions. Considering the amount of talking in the film and the long titles I’m willing to believe that’s a possibility. When you see the film you’ll understand what I’m saying.

If the film has any real flaw, it’s the brief opening prolog that explains an earlier tragic event in the history of the fan. The sequence is wonderful, except that it’s a bit too much foreshadowing concerning later events. Its not fatal, but it would have kept thins more mysterious had it not been there.

Definitely worth tracking down, especially if you’re a fan of mysteries.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Theory of Obscurity:A Film About The Residents (2015) SXSW 2015

The Residents.

You may not know their music, but you know their imagery-particularly four tuxedoed guys wearing eyeball masks and top hats. They are a group of guys who have “never” revealed their identities instead preferring to work in obscurity since the world, since an artist’s best work is always done that way. The group fused their music with wild imagery to create what can only be called art rock (Their videos are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern art). Their music films predated MTV’s music videos and influenced all that followed in their wake

I’m a casual fan of The Residents at best. I loved their videos on MTV back in the 80’s and I loved their imagery but I have no albums and I couldn’t name a song if my life depended on it. When THEORY OF OBSCURITY: A FILM ABOUT THE RESIDENTS was announced for SXSW I was intrigued, especially since I really liked the poster art (see above). I contacted the PR people to see if I could review the film and after some miscues things came together and boy am I glad- THEORY OF OBSCURITY is one of my favorite films I’ve seen in 2015 so far.

A history of the band from their inception until the present day this is absolutely fascinating trip into the world of the Residents and outsider art rock and roll. Here were a bunch of guys from the American South who went to San Francisco and ended up making music because it was easier to do then make movies… maybe. The trouble with that statement is that the history of The Residents is malleable. Since we don’t know who they group is we can’t be certain what happened since they aren’t talking even if everyone around them is.

To be honest I think that what is in the film is pretty much the way things were. I can’t see it all being a grand game, even if the Residents want to remain largely obscure.


Sitting down to watch the film I fell into it. I loved the groups desire to make their music their way. I loved all of the crazy things they did-“Hey we’ve got nothing to do today-let’s make a film- what are we going to do? We’ll cover everything in newspaper and just wing it. (The footage ended up in a promotional film for Third Reich and Roll) I loved how they simply created their own musical world.

One thing that stuck with me was their ethic that you don’t have to be a trained musician. Music didn’t have to follow rules, but had to follow, essentially, your heart. Make your music your own way. I adore that they have the attitude that you should just do what you want so long as you can “own” what you’re doing- meaning just go for it and sell it, don’t make it ironic, make it your own. There is something about that attitude that makes me smile- if there was any group of guys who prove you can go your own way and be successful it’s The Residents.

While the film is full of good music and wild imagery, the film is also full of talking heads (and a Talking Head-Jerry Harrison) who explain why the Residents are cool and what they have achieved. Les Claypool from Primus explains how he used to hate the Residents, but that the group and their music grew on him like a fungus- to the point where Claypool performs their music.

You have to forgive me I can’t talk about this film rationally, I can only gush about it because I love it so much.

I don’t know if this is one of the best films of the year, it may be, but it certainly is one of my most favorite-which is probably better since it will stay with me more than many “best” films.

(A great thought this film should be screened with another one of my favorite films of 2015 THE KING OF NERAC for a fantastic look at creativity and the creation of art.)

The Devil (1921)

George Arliss makes his film debut playing the title character in a film that is a kind of riff on Dangerous Liaisons.

Arliss plays Dr Muller a rich aristocrat who gets his jollies wrecking relationships and reputations. Getting his hooks into an artist and his lady love he runs roughshod over them breaking their faith in each other and god.

That last comment and the title make for one of wilder endings I’ve seen in a film, and making the film much less an allegory than you might think. Actually it removes any notion of it being an allegory- which really isn’t that surprising considering the mischief that Arliss gets up to.

The film is a solid little melodrama, supernatural ending aside. The cast sells the soap with great aplomb and in my case they sucked me into the story with such fervor that I actually sat and watched it all the way to the end without zipping through on scan (a fate suffered by less compelling silent films)

Definitely worth a look see, especially if you only know Arliss from some of his physically stiff performances from the sound era.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Leopard Woman (1920)

This is a much better than i had thought it would be spy/adventure romance set in Africa.

The plot has a woman called Madame aka the Leopard Woman, working for a foreign power. She is tasked with stopping a British expedition into the wild who are hoping to reach a far off "uncivilized" kingdom some distance away. The British hope to form an alliance with the distant people. As the parties head off into the wild various events along the way have dire consequences for all involved and put the Leopard woman and her opposite number on a collision course toward romance.

Purely romantic adventure, the plot really is a grand MacGuffin and the excuse to bring the eventual lovers together. Its good enought that you get carried along with the tale even though you can pretty much know where its all going even if you don't know the details.

The real selling point of the film is it's look. This film looks incredible, It really does look like it was filmed in the wilds of Africa and not the Ince Studios in Hollywood and the desert near Palm Springs. It puts many similar modern films to shame.

The film is a small gem and something you should track down.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Iron Mask (1929)

Huge suptuous retelling of the Dumas classic has  Douglas Fairbanks return to the role of D'Artagnan.  This time out the complex plot has the queen giving birth to twins.One of the prices is spirited away lest their be strife in the kingdom. D'Artagnan, after some adventureis ultimately assigned to protect the prince, but troubles arise after the prince is kidnapped and his brother is placed on the throne instead.

This huge scale spectacle may very well be my favorite Douglas Fairbanks film. To be fair that isn't hard since out side of this film, The Thief of Bagdad and The Black Pirate I'm not really a fan of any of his films. There is a lightness to most of them that takes away from the excitment. The other films feel like a goof.

Iron Mask is not a goof. Its a very serious film where there is a human toll for everything that happens. A good number of the main characters die. By the time the film ends there is very few left to take a bow.

The film looks great. Talk about crazy Hollywood spectacle this film is it Everything looks and feels real. There is an opulence to the proceedings that simply makes you go Oh Wow whether you want to or not.

The film's action is wonderfully real. These are not fights where Fairbanks takes on 57 men single handedly but fights to the death. We don't know who will live and die, and once things are in motion die they do.

This is a great film and great filmmaking.

This is a must see.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

The Man From Reno opens Friday

The Man From Reno opens this Friday in theaters and its one hell of a film. A twisty turny film it holds your attention tighter than most mainstream movies you’re going to run across. The plot has a Japanese author going to San Francisco on a book tour and to meet friends when she meets a handsome young man. Where it goes is the film.

I saw the film back in July when it played at Japan Cuts. I loved the film a great deal but had some problems with the plot which as some intentionally added bumps. Now almost a year later I can’t remember my reservations but I remember the film. Below you’ll find my review from Japan Cuts.

Dave Boyle's riff on neo noir concerns a mystery writer from Japan who unexpectedly leaves her book tour to fly to San Francisco nominally to see friends, but it soon becomes clear she's considering checking out permanently. Her life gets thrown a curve ball when she meets a Japanese man with whom she spends a passionate night. He's gone in the morning leaving her in a tizzy and in a bit of trouble. At the same time we follow the story of a small town sheriff who runs over a man in the fog and ends up on a course that will connect with our heroine.

A mostly solid little mystery and a very good film, has me scratching my head with all of the laurels it's collecting. Its a good little thriller that has some nice twists on what you expect from a mystery such as this but it's not that great. I had that feeling even before one thing that happens that makes no logical sense except in the director and writers mind. This is also one of those movies that goes on three steps too long since the story is effectively over at a certain point.

I would love to explain what I meant but I don't want to ruin the film when you see it- and you will want to see it.

The Q&A was interesting with director Boyle talking about how he put the film together and how he used Kickstarter. I do have to applaud the woman who asked about the point that bothered me and he said that he did it that way because he wanted to. He knew it didn't make sense in the real world but he did it anyway. I suspect from the way he answered the question the point bothered a lot of other people since the answer seemed well rehearsed. (And no it doesn't make sense I explained why to some people between the films and they agreed it really doesn't make sense at all in an otherwise realistic film)

Yes the point really annoys the hell out of me. And no it doesn't ruin the film for me since it's effectively over before it.

The Midnight Girl (1925)

Silent pot boiler had Bela Lugosi as a patron of the arts who ends up getting into a battle with his son over the same woman.

While okay as pot boilers to go the film is primarily of interest for fans of Bela Lugosi.  If you've only seen Lugosi in his horror films  and later sound films THE MIDNIGHT GIRL will come as a revelation. Lugosi really could act. Not only could he act, he could smile and emote and move without the stiffness that he some time had.  He's so good you kind of wonder why he never really clicked before Dracula.

Helping matters is the films fantastic set design. The film set in high society and in and around the New York Opera House looks good. This is the make believe world of the rich and famous and it all feels real, or as real as movies of this sort can be.

Is this a great film?

No. Actually it's just marginally a good one. Its pure potboiler of the sort they don't do any more for good reason, its painfully contrived. Sure films like this morphed into soap operas but here things are just too sudsy.

Is the film worth seeing. If you're a fan of Lugosi it is. There is something about seeing him before Dracula and several years younger that makes his story even more interesting, if not more tragic.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The final two days at The New York International Children's Film Festival : SHAUN THE SHEEP, ENCHANTED KINGDOM and KAHLIL GIBRAN'S THE PROPHET

This was the final weekend of the New York International Children's Film Festival, and once more I was in the trenches.

Saturday I went to see SHAUN THE SHEEP a second time, taking Randi and John along for the ride.

I won't go into the film — Hubert is hard at work on a review, However, I will say that the film is just as funny the second time. I know I need another go through to catch everything I missed this time through — which is different than what I missed the first time through.

John and Randi loved the film. I know John did for certain because he was pretty much laughing from start to finish — which is the second of two post end credit sequences. (YES, there are TWO post credit bits one several seconds after the screen blacks out, so hang around)

Discussion to the restaurant after the film and even in the film was talking about its place in the animation/children's film pantheon of the last few years with the recent PADDINGTON figuring heavily into the discussion.

Sunday was a double-header at the Directors Guild Theater, as the official last two films of the festival screened.

ENCHANTED KINGDOM is from the makers of the BBC series PLANET EARTH and WALKING WITH DINOSAURS, and it's one of the best uses of 3D I've ever seen. It's a jaw-dropping, make-you- tear-up-with-the- mix-of-music-and-image sort of film , a must-see-on-a-big-screen film. This film kicks ass and then then some. It's one of the best film going experiences of the year.

The film is a trip across Africa to the mountains, ocean, plains, jungles and deserts. It's an in-your-face look at the animals that live in the various environments. While the narration is really cursory, the images are not and it's one of the few times I've ever felt things were floating over the audience (the lionfish for example)

By the time the Coldplay song comes on at the end I was tearing up big time.

You must see this in the theater because this will not work flat or on TV.

The final feature was Roger Aller's KAHLIL GIBRAN'S THE PROPHET....

...give the festival points for screening this for the families but take some away for boring the kids around me and putting a large number of the audience dead asleep. Who did they make this film for? (I'm puzzled by GKIDS picking it for release, since it's not going to make a great deal of money because the appeal is going to be very limited)

Refashioning Gibran's book into the story of an exiled poet released from prison and nominally making his way to a ship home, mixed with the tale of his housekeeper and her daughter, the film tries to cover a great deal of ground. Periodically the poet speaks Gibran's words, and the sequences are all animated by various artists (Tomm Moore, Nina Paley, Joann Sfar, Bill Plympton and others).

Roger Allers introduced the film and I was hopeful that it would be something special. I mean the man made THE LION KING — it should be special. Truth be told, it is...but largely the film is all over the place, and all of the blame has to fall on Allers alone since he wrote it, directed the linking material, and put it all together.

How did they botch this? Let me count the ways...(Warning: I discuss the ending)

The first problem is that the animation of the main story is all over the place. Hey, it's great he seems to have sent all of the money to the sequence directors, but he should have kept some for himself. The Poet sequences are a weird mix of computer and 2D animation. Some of it is very good, but some of it is low-rent TV animation. That would be fine except that the poetry sequences look so much better that they put it to shame. Within shots and sequences you'll have nicely animated characters mixed with one that was obviously done by computer. It looks wrong.

The second and more important problem is in the script Allers cobbled together. What is the film about, really? You have the poet, the police, the housekeeper and her daughter who refuses to talk. Why do we have so many characters? I'm not quite sure. I really don't know the point of the little girl other than to make this family-friendly and give the film a touching ending.

I'll get to the ending in a moment, but the plot seems to be a scaled-down version of the book, with the poet stopping in his travels to give advice or a blessing. It was never much of a plot in the book, but it worked since it was enough to link things together. Here it kind of works for a while since the animated sequences by the other directors carry the film up to this point anyway.

And then in the final third, things go off the rails. What was supposed to be a trip home for the poet instead becomes a life or death struggle as he is brought not to the ship home but to the prison. He is to sign a paper renouncing his work or be killed. While I admire weighty animated films this surprise was simply too much. I wanted to scream "Really? Really?" but thought better of it because Allers was sitting right behind me.

Where the hell does this come from? I have no idea. While the inclusion of a riot and a bittersweet(i.e. downbeat) ending allows for a teary final sequence as we hear and see some thing mystical (Liam Neeson is fantastic as the poet by the way), its really out of left field. The film didn't need it and the fact that the film adds the "uber-serious politics can mean death" angle lessens the weight of everything that went before, because it's so heavy that it pulls the fabric in the film the wrong way.

On the other hand ,the various sequences by the guest directors are visual delights and I can forgive the film its flaws because it allows these bits to exist. I loved all of the sequences with the exception of Joann Sfar's "On Marriage" which is a dull tango. (Though to be fair "On Marriage" is one of my favorite passages in the book, and I was reciting it with the film until I realized that it just wasn't working for me — it had to be perfect or it was doomed). Probably the best are Nina Paley's and Tomm Moore's music videos. I wanted to stop the film and play them over and over again. The sequences are magical and all completely different and all work in their own way. (In fairness I have to say that Aller's sequence — the execution and its mystical aftermath is as good as the others however while it tugs the heartstrings it gets an emotional reaction the it never earned because the rest of Aller's work is nowhere near this level.)

While I truly don't hate the film, I think it's a gawd-awful mess, There's some great stuff here but there is also some real poor stuff as well. I don't know what happened or why — I suspect the fact very few of us can match Gibran's level of writing so the script doesn't work and I'm guessing too much money was spent on the poetry and not enough on the binding.

Should you see it? If you're a fan of the animators, yes. If you're forgiving as well. However, I wouldn't bring your kids, since I don't know what they'll make of it. That's not a slap, since many adults had no clue either (I listened while several parents fumbled when asked by their kids "what did you think?")

I think it's fitting that NYICFF ended on a challenging film probably no one else would have run for an audience of kids. At the same time I really wish it was better. (And keep your fingers crossed GKIDS is releasing this and I think they are going to need luck to turn a profit)

And with that NYICFF is done — and it's time to go into hibernation until next year.

Tom Sawyer (1917)

Jack Pickford is probably the best Tom Sawyer I've seen in this silent adaption of of the Mark Twain classic.

Largely focusing on Tom and his interest in  Becky, the film nicely shades Tom as more than just a bad boy. We actually get a sense of him as more than a crazy kid. The crazier one here is Huck Finn. When  tom does something like tricking the kids into painting the fence for him it's less for his being lazy and more for wanting to just get it done. WHile the first two thirds is episodic, the final third has Tom and his friends running away and being thought dead.

The film is a bit creaky with age, but at the same time Pickford's Huck, while a bit too old to be the young man of the novel, is a fine late teenage version of Twain's hero. There is a complexity to him that I've never seen in any other version. You see he thinks and has feelings. While it maybe sacrilege to some I could see this Tom Sawyer growing up and joining the League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Pickford's performance is the reason to see the film and its so good it will make you see the character in a completely new light.