Friday, December 31, 2010

Unseen Turkey Day, Hours 5-6: Moon Zero Two (#111, 1990)

Truly, the early 1990s was the Golden Age for comedy-based cable stations, spawning not one but two channels based on yucks and chortles: HBO/Time Warner's The Comedy Channel and Viacom's Ha! Networks.

Comedy Channel and Ha!


And, like everything else during the Gordon Gecko decade, takeovers, mergers, and just plain business-world gobbling-up resulted in the two networks merging to form The Comedy Network, later known as Comedy Central, a TV channel created so that for years Penn Jillette would have a voiceover job. It was still early: these were heady vintage days of The Higgins Boys and Gruber and Short Attention Span Theater, of the pre-Bill Nye the Science Guy sketch show Almost Live and my own personal favorite cartoon periodically starring a little stuffed bull, Dr. Katz, Professional Therapist.

The Comedy Channel was not only the first national venue for Mystery Science Theater 3000 but also its flagship show of its earliest days, one of the first shows picked up by the network following a pitch tape sent by Best Brains to the channel. As truckloads of HBO money rolled into the Brains studios, they revamped and improved the look of the sets, the effects, the robots, and a new opening sequence:



MST3K also introduced two new performers to the show: Kevin Murphy as the new voice of Tom Servo and Frank Conniff as Frank, replacing Josh Weinstein as Dr. Forrester's assistant. With only a few tweaks and tightenings of the concept to be made in future seasons, MST3K had evolved into its next and nearly-ultimate form: tighter scripting, more and faster-paced riffing on the movies, and a more consistent backstory. Though for many years Best Brains kept the Season One shows off the rerun circuit, declaring that they seemed rough and unpolished by later seasons' standards (and to be fair, they were), there's still some great classic episodes among the first season's 13 shows.

MST3KRight now I'm scoping out, via future-screen, episode 111, Moon Zero Two, which is among the swingingest, grooviest, gear-and-fabbest sci-fi fly-sci motion picture of the late 1960s. How can you tell it's science fiction? It's about British people on the moon. How can you tell it's swingin' and groovy and all those other paisley-tinted adjectives I mentioned above? Why, just check out the movie's original animated opening sequence, which looks like the opening to a Pink Panther flick (or MST3K's later Catalina Caper).



How sixties was that, huh? The go-go grooves of that theme song even had Joel up and out of his seat, a-rockin' and a-boppin'.

MST3K


Didja notice how the song speeded up towards the end of the credits? It doesn't look like the directors timed out the animation length against the song!

For all its wacky opening, Moon Zero Two is no Austin Powers in Space but a fairly dry-humored tale of claim-jumping and high-tech heists...on the moooooon!. In my book, this would have been a fantastic vehicle for 1960s superstar Michael Caine, who could then utter the phrase "You were only supposed to blow the bloody airlock doors off!" Alas, it must only star Michael Caine in my dreams, instead actually featuring British midlist actors like James Olson from The Andromeda Strain and Catherine von Schell (later of TV's Space: 1999). The Space: 1999 comparison is an apt one: the effects, sets, and models are reminiscent of the later work of Gerry Anderson: well-designed spaceships and candy-colored spacesuits add to the visual effervescences of the film, but the script can't quite make up its mind whether it's a gritty "western on the moon" or a light, roguish "bank robbery on the moon" movie. Whichever it is, I think we can agree on one thing: it was on the moon. Sure, it might be overshadowed by its big brother, 1969 SF classic 2001. But did 2001 ever have spandex-clad tassel-bottomed go-go dancers in a moon bar? No. No, it did not.

MST3K


The movie's actually quite fun on its own, but not such a classic that I mind Joel and the bots riffing throughout it. A supporting cast of familiar faces in bit parts adds to the fun (Monty Python's Carol Cleveland, Passport to Pimlico's Sam Kydd), and cult director Roy Ward Baker (A Night to Remember, Quatermass and the Pit, several Hammer Horror flicks and episodes of The Saint and The Avengers) brought a good pedigree and a light, irreverent touch to the adventure. It's worth seeking out both in its MSTed and original versions, but if you only watch the original, you're going to miss Joel turning the bots into "real-life" Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots.

MST3K


So, don't forget to belly up to the Lazy B Saloon space bar...on the moooooon!...and order yourself a Double Moonflower "in a dirty space tumbler!" See you in two hours...on the moooo...oh, wait, we won't be there anymore.

Unseen Turkey Day, Hours 3-4: SST—Death Flight (#K13, 1989)

MST3KWhat's the most star-studded MST3K episode ever? For a show that featured low-budget movies, there's certainly some big-ass celebrities in many of the Mystery Science Theater 3000s. (also, there is Joe Don Baker). Bela Lugosi's in all of those Phantom Creeps shorts and Bride of the Monster, Basil Rathbone chews the scenery in The Magic Sword, Little Richard really turns up the heat in Catalina Caper. Tiny, tiny, Pia Zadora is a green-faced rugrat in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians. Michael Landon? He's a Teen-Age Werewolf. And Peter Graves? Thanks to his studies at the University of Minnesota, he's in every film ever made.

And of course, there's Gene Hackman. Hackman is good in anything (Even Marooned).

But for sheer Hollywood star power, you can't do much better than MST3K's episode K13, SST—Death Flight, a 1977 made-for-TV airplane disaster movie obviously created to capitalize on America's love of aeronautic fear as shown in 1970's Airport and its sequels Airport '75 and Airport '77. SST beats the third sequel Concorde: Airport '79 to market by two years, thus becoming the definitive faster-than-sound airplane disaster movie. And like Airport, it's jam-packed with more celebrity brilliant white smiles than Match Game '76. But while a theatrical movie like Airport features the big contemporary stars of cinema—Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Helen Hayes, George Kennedy, and an early appearance by Doc Emmett Brown himself, Christopher Lloyd—SST spotlights major television stars, obviously on summer hiatus from their TV shows. Robert Reed, patriarch of TV's The Brady Bunch, stars as your supersonic captain:

MST3K


Here's Billy Crystal as a stewardess steward flight attendant:

MST3K


Master of both the Ponderosa and the Galactica, Lorne Greene:

MST3K


And future shouting talk- and game-show host Regis Philbin as a newscaster:

MST3K


You got Burgess Meredith, Bert Convy, Peter Graves, Tina Louise, Doug McClure, Misty Rowe, Robert Ito...hey, that's Quincy M.E.'s Sam! As in "Sam, I don't think he died of natural causes!" "Quince, you're crazy! Asten'll have your head if you delay the autopsy!" "Don't worry, Sam, I've got an idea on how to handle Dr. Asten...a crazy idea!" Oh, sorry, please excuse me, I suddenly started writing Quincy fan fiction there.

Sci-fi fans'll recognize John DeLancie (Star Trek: The Next Generation's "Q"), Brock Peters (the radio voice of Darth Vader), and, if you're a child of the 1970s Saturday Morning Filmation line-up, Space Academy's Ric Carrott. Holy cow, this thing is practically a Love Boat in the making! All we need is to get Charo on board.

For an overblown TV movie-of-the-week film, SST—Death Flight is compellingly watchable. Sure, it's cheese, but it's entertaining cheese, and the dramatic plot and multiple name actors give Joel and the bots good fodder for riffing. It's my favorite of the KTMA Season Zero MST3Ks, and in fact I always love when Best Brains breaks with the tradition of using a science fiction or monster film to spotlight a made-for-TV movie. (Later favorites of mine in this genre are the two Master Ninja episodes, Quinn Martin's Code Name: Diamond Head and San Francisco International.

By now, all the elements of a latter-day MST3K are in place, if not necessarily in their finished form. Mad scientists Dr. Laurence Erhardt and Dr. Clayton Forrester send Joel a bad movie (Forrester: "I ran into Bert Convy in the parking lot and he gave me the film!"). How can you tell these guys are evil scientists? Simple: like the Batman TV series, the camera's tilted whenever they're shown in their secret evil lair.

MST3K


There's plenty of celebrity-reference riffing...we've even got husky-sexy-voiced Gypsy, and more than a few blue riffs from Joel. ("So that's why they call it a cockpit!") I don't quite understand that one myself, but there it is. More to the point, K13 features the first appearance of that time-honored phrase spoken by Clayton Forrester: "Push the button!"

SST—Death Flight is definitely one of the high points of Season Zero. The Brains will do this sort of movie much better later on (see San Francisco International) but it's one of the first signs that the concept need not be restricted to sci-fi clunkers only.

See you in a couple hours as the series moves into its first Comedy Channel season, and don't forget: "Put the [oxygen] masks on the important stars first!"

Unseen Turkey Day, Hours 1-2: Gamera vs. Barugon (#K04, 1988)

Come on, sing it along with me!:



We gather together to watch cheesy movies
At Comedy Central on Thanksgiving Day
At Mystery Science (inhale) Theater 3000
It's thirty straight hours and it's called Turkey Day!


Aw, you know the music. It's the promotion for the Thanksgiving marathon of one of fandom's most beloved TV series of all time, Mystery Science Theater 3000. The show where the guy and the robots watch old bad science fiction and monster movies and make fun of—"riff" on—them? It's one of my fave shows, and as all right-minded people will agree, it's one of yours, too.

Mystery Science Theater 3000"Turkey Day" consisted of exactly what it says on the tin: 15 two-hour MST3K episodes run one after the other through Thanksgiving Day, giving you both a dandy excuse to avoid family dinners and lounge on the couch for a day and a quarter. Sadly, in the later years of Comedy Central's airing of MST3K Turkey Day was skipped; it wasn't picked up when the show shifted to the Sci-Fi Channel. And now, like the bison roaming the plains and Red Barn Restaurants, Turkey Day has faded into history, never to be seen again.

Or...is it?

It's not Thanksgiving, but here at Unseen Films we're all for reviving the tradition of Turkey Day with a homemade marathon of twenty-four hours (sorry, not thirty!) of MST3K's infrequently-seen, off-the-radar episodes, to ring in the new year of 2011. MST3K would have been 23 in this coming year...I'm sure that's the way it would have wanted it if it had survived.

Oh, wait a minute, what's with this "if it had survived"? Mystery Science Theater 3000 still lives on in the hearts and minds of its bajillions of fans...and in the creators' edict at the bottom of episodes' end credits: "Keep circulating the tapes." It's an idea that was as ahead of its time as the show's comedy: that a show's creators actively and officially encourage re-distribution of episode copies to keep the show alive. Even tho' tapes have gone the way of the dodo and the Pup 'n' Taco, MST3K files and DVDs are actively traded and available. (Do a little snooping around the internet and you'll find 'em yourself.) With an unusual measure of respect for copyright holders, it's generally informally enforced among the fans that the episodes now available on official retail DVDs from Rhino and Shout Factory should no longer be traded...but that still leaves dozens of episodes that haven't yet been released officially, and many that never will, due to rights restrictions or disagreements with the producers of the original films. Here at Unseen Films, our Turkey Day celebrates these "off the grid" episodes with looks at twelve MST3Ks we don't often get to see. (Some may be completely new to you!) So hunker down, load up on nachos and Mr. Pibb, plan out your bathroom breaks for the next 24 hours...it's Movie Sign!

First up: let's take a look at one of the most rare episodes of Mystery Science Theater: one of those from "Season Zero," the shows that only ran locally on Minneapolis-St. Paul's KTMA-23. Very rough by its later polished standards, these episodes have never been officially released commercially (except for several minutes of highlights on a scrapbook tape released by MST3K's Best Brains). There's a reason for this: even die-hard MSTies can find these shows challenging to watch. But they're fascinating from a historical viewpoint: you can follow the early genesis of a comedy show from local favorite to cable sensation. Although the small group of Best Brains always created their show from scratch from beginning to end, the early sets, props, robots, and costuming are DIY-to-the extreme. You think you know what Joel and the bots look like? Check out their proto-looks:

MST3K


The basic premise is set from the beginning: guy and his robots watch cheesy movies and riff on them. Even the theme song's the same tune (although with charmingly primitive model effects):



But the KTMA episodes are rough and unformed by later standards. Joel Hodgson (as the lost-in-space Joel Robinson), Trace Beaulieu (voice and performer of Crow T. Robot) and Josh Weinstein (the first Tom Servo) were rumored to have worked without a script for the in-theater sequences (altho' there's occasional well-prepped riffs that seem to deflate the ad-libbing theory), as a result, the riffs sometimes fall flat and there can be several silent minutes between their comments. The rapid-fire "seven hundred jokes a show" format was still in their cable future—and the movie often runs for twenty or thirty seconds even after Joel and Company have exited the theater. But since the KTMA season presented several movies the Brains would later re-do in their Comedy Central years, you can see the evolution in movies like, say, the first one up on our Turkey Day marathon: the 1988 episode "K04." Gamera vs. Barugon!

MST3K


One of the many series of Japanese monster films ultra-popular during the 1960s, the Gamera films starred a giant turtle and his love for the young Japanese boy Kenny, and indeed, for all children, in between destroying much of Tokyo. (Actually, Gamera vs. Barugon is the only one of the Gamera films uncomplicated by young boys in tight shorts.) Best Brains would later re-do the movie in cable season 3 (1991), and you can readily spot the growth of the performers and the concept comparing both versions. This KTMA episode has a lot of homemade charm and is the genesis of several of the in-theater riffs, but the later version greatly expands the laffs with hundreds more jokes and more-professional performances, effects, and puppetry. But there's a joy and anarchy in these early cable shows, and a strong sensation that the cast's doing something behind the station manager's back here. Some of the familiar running gag riffs are here ("He seemed like a nice guy." "...AT FIRST!") and the host segments are bright and creative, with an "anything can happen" attitude. Since this is the chronologically first episode of Season Zero that still exists today and is actively traded, it's our best look at the earliest genesis of the show. Even here, we can see some suggestions through the viewer answer machine calls and some of the show's changing tropes from the earlier, ur-MST3K of the first three episodes we'll probably never see.

Episode K04 features Joel and both bots, but this wouldn't be true of the whole season: the next episode only Joel enters the theater and riffs the film, and there's an entire show (K17, Time of the Apes) where Joel doesn't appear at all and the bots take control of the host segments and the riffing. Best Brains would later play with the concept of switching around the in-theater movie-viewers (I'll be watching one of my favorite instances of this trope, Last of the Wild Horses, episode 611, later today on Turkey Day).

As sheer entertainment the KTMA version of Gamera vs. Barugon pales before its 1991 remake, but every Turkey Day oughta include a Season Zero show or two to get your riffing engines up to speed. What it lacks in consistent laugh-out-loud comedy it more than makes up for in creativity and energy (if you can call Joel's mellow, laid-back, possibly stoned demeanor "energetic"). As the first existing MST3K we still have, it's historically important. And don't forget: "Operation Fuzzy Dice" is a go!

MST3K

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Verdict (1946)


Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre star in a neat little film that isn't really over until the final fade out.

The plot of the film has detective Greenstreet walking away from the execution of killer. He is happy, but at the same time something is bothering him. Things take a turn for the worst when he gets back to his office only to find that evidence has come to light to say that the executed man was innocent. Greenstreet resigns in disgrace. His friends try to comfort him but he is heartbroken and decides to write his memoirs. Fate steps in as he becomes involved in yet another murder, and it's related to the murder he solved in correctly.

I had picked this film up on a whim from the Warner Brother Archive collection because it was one of the pairings of Lorre and Greenstreet that I had not heard of. I have always liked the pairing of the two on screen since I always had the sense that they were good friends off screen. I don't know how true that is, but there always seemed to be an ease in the way they performed together that made it seem like there was a history. Certainly that familiarity works wonders in this film since the pair play long time friends.

One of the joys of this film is that very rapidly it becomes clear that the plot is not going to be easily untangled. You aren't going to guess everything that is happening at the start because it isn't formula. As I said at the outset the film doesn't end until the final fade out and I mean it. The last bit isn't revealed until the very end.

As much as I love the dark brooding films from the 1930's and 40's I find that with most of them the plots become easy to unravel at a certain point since they seem to have been working from a stock plot. That isn't the case here. The first time I saw this I put it on expecting to have a nice little mystery to have on in the background while I worked. I figured I could half pay attention and still know what was going on. That wasn't the case, and I ended up not doing my work and instead hunkering down and just watching the film with the lights turned off.

This is a great little film.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The final updates and links post for 2010

I wasn't planning on any more update/link posts for this calendar year but a few things have popped up and I thought I'd share one last time before the year is out.

Summer Wars which I've mentioned several times finally gets a theatrical run before it hits DVD in February. The film is playing in NYC at the IFC Center and is worth a trip.

The BAM Kids Film Festival is the first weekend in February at The Brooklyn Academy of Music starting the 2011 film festival cycle. Randi, John, Bully and myself will be attending Moomins and the Comet Chase. The schedule of films appears to be quite good and I recommend it, with one word of warning: many of the films are subtitled, which will be read out by actors. Sometimes this works and sometimes not. I don't like it, but that's me. The schedule can be found here.

A piece of Jacques Tati and The Illusionist by Roger Ebert can be found here.

Pondering if its worth going to the movies.

Man in a Blizzard.

Variations on the end of year list theme:
Reject movies of 2010
Over Rated Movies of 2010
Great Films You May Have Missed

And a few more Christmas links:
The Best Christmas Movies
Christmas Movie Poster Mash Ups
Lesser Known Holiday Movies
Carol of the Bells ala The Muppets

As the year ends I feel I need to apologize to John Stanley who took over from Bob Wilkins as host of Creature Feature in San Fransisco and the Bay Area. Mr Stanley has put out a whole bunch of great DVDs from his tenure as host of the show, including two sets of complete shows including commercials. Back in September after I got the DVDs I emailed him to say I was having a blast with the discs and I told him I was planning on doing an entry on the blog about them after the craziness of the NYFF and NY Comicon.

Well, truth be told in the mad dash of the bad back, the FF and the convention I misplaced the DVDs. I know approximately where they are, but I'm not sure. And until I actually find them I can't do the post the way I want to. The post is coming, hell, a portion of it is written and sitting waiting for the details of the discs to be filled in. Hopefully it will be soon.

Until that happens could you all go over to Mr Stanley's website and buy some stuff? There are all sorts of cool DVD's and books. Actually if you want a great reference book on genre films pick up his Creature feature Guides, because not only are the informative, they are simply great reads. As for the DVD's any of them are good. From the full episodes to the discs that are collections of his wonderful interviews, all are just good times on the couch. Actually Mr Stanley's interviews are light years ahead of most interviews on genre subjects that you're likely to find because he knows his subject and he refuses to ask stupid questions or talk down to or about his guests. His website can be found here.

Lastly as 2010 winds down I want to thank you for taking the time to stop by. While we probably would still be doing this if there wasn't an audience, its nice to know that there are some people who are looking to go off the board and see something other than the big Hollywood movies.

From all of us here at Unseen Films a very Happy New Year.

Capsule Reviews 12/29/10

It's been a while since I've done some capsule reviews so as today's Wednesday Matinee I'm going to post some horror films you might have missed.

SAUNA(2008)
Finnish horror film concerns the parties assigned by Sweden and Russia to draw the border between the two countries in 1595. The need to do so comes out of a 25 year long war that became so terrible that both sides realized that they had to call an end to it. As the party heads off into the wilderness they come upon a village in the middle of a swamp. In the town no children are born and the elderly don't die. There is also a sauna, where dark things happen. Focusing on two brothers the film is a low key film with some blood and little gore. In a weird way it's less a straight on horror film then a Grimm's Fairy Tale like meditation of damnation and absolution. It's an odd film in how it doesn't play by horror film conventions. I'm still not sure what I think of it, but there is something about the performances and the feel of the film that refuses to go away. If you look at IMDB you'll find that some people love it and some people hate it. I'm somewhere in the middle, and rolling between love and hate. Either way it's made a big enough impression that I think it's worth a try. Out on DVD.

MANSON MY NAME IS EVIL (2009)
This was originally called LESLIE MY NAME IS EVIL and there is a title card at the end of the DVD copy I saw that still read Leslie My Name is Evil. The original title is a clue that this film really isn't a horror film or even a serial killer expose. The film is actually an intriguing satire of society, specifically the late 1960's. The film tells the fictional parallel stories of one of the girls on trial with Manson for the Tate LoBianco murders. I'm not going to lie and say the film is great, its not. Actually its more a film that is better in what it's trying to do and how it's doing it.It has a wicked visual style that is intentionally artificial and to me it really works. I was surfing the ideas more than the story, which is okay. Definitely worth the shot if you don't mind a film trying to do more than it can.

SHELTER (2010)
Julianne Moore plays a forensic psychologist who makes a living debunking multiple personality claims. Her father, also a psychologist keeps showing her patients that are meant to test her. One day after the execution of one of the men she helped keep in jail, her dad brings her face to face with a strange young man... Very good little thriller is completely under the radar. Its a solid thrill machine who's only real flaw is that the film is a bit too leisurely until the the final half hour when it goes into over drive. I suggest that if you see the film you try to do so and be like me,and walk into the film knowing as little as possible. All I knew was that it was about multiple personalities and I found out that it was about something else entirely. (though I suggest you keep in mind that I have grouped this with some horror films). See the film but just try to take the journey as our heroine does and I think you'll find it haunts your psyche for a while afterward.

Princess Iron Fan (1941)


The first feature length animated film from China is a must see for fans of Chinese cinema with an interest in their history as well as anyone who is a hardcore animation fan with a desire to see it all. For the rest of you this is going to be a tough sell.

The film tells to story of three travelers, one of which is The Monkey King traveling to the West. They are stopped by a huge area of fire in the mountains and they must get a fan owned by the title character if they are to proceed. The story starts there and then spins off in a couple of other directions.

I'm not going to lie, since as you can see from my synopsis of the plot, I'm very mixed about the film. There are some wonderful things in it and some things that had me puttering around my room while I watched.

The problems come from the style of the story telling. Its a style that we in the West are not used to, even those of use who watch a large number of films from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Its a style that matches the style of the films being made at about the same point of time and after the war. Its mannered and flowing and has more going on than just telling the plot and getting on with it. Things like the sing along song about the banquet just weren't my cup of tea (and for the record I never liked the follow the bouncing ball in American films either). Ultimately I think its too mannered in a way I'm not used to for it to fully work for me.

On the other hand there are some wonderful things going on.

The animation which relies heavily on rotoscoping for the bipedal characters is often quite lovely. Sure its rotoscoped but there is a beauty to the motion we don't often see in many animated films- even ones that are similarly rotoscoped. The non-rotoscoped sequences are often amazing with things like the fire demon being a joy to behold.

And of course there are the backgrounds. Done in the style one sees in clssical paintings they give the film a sense of being some thing from antiqity sprung to life. Disney may have tried to do something similar with some bits of Mulan, and other recent films have tried to do something similar, but this is the real deal. It reminded me or what was done with Secret of Kells the recent Oscar nominated film that had a design based upon the designs in the Book of Kells.

The animation has a feel, once you get past the rotoscoping, of being an odd amalgum of western styles. Bits feel like Fleischer, but mixed with Ub Iwerks (and I mean Iwerks and not Disney), and a touch of the Otto Messner Felix the Cat. I would also dare say that there is a heavy influence of silent film fantasy especially something similar to the George Melies films. Its this weird feeling of watching all of these influences put into a blender and spit back out.


It's a fun film for a while, but its hard to sit through from start to finish unless you really are loving it or have some reason to be watching. Ambivalence aside Il I do recommend that you at least try the film. To that end if you follow this link you should be able to see a portion of the film.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Magneto, Professor X , Dr Who and Shakespeare


A couple of years back both Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart came to New York with in a relatively short period of time to do Shakespeare.

McKellan did King Lear at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It was for me a one of the best Shakespearean plays I've ever seen. It was a triumph and it was the first time I ever understood the play. It also had a fantastic performance by McKellan who broke your heart. I say this because I'd seen several other Lears over the years and none worked for me (Christopher Plummer's was so over the top to start I walked out 20 minutes in because he had nowhere to go)

Patrick Stewart did Macbeth. Set in an unnamed totalitarian country in some what modern day the play was a tight lecture on Fascist politics. It was also the only time I've ever seen an audience scream and literally leap out of their seats with the Act 1 closer of the appearance of Banquo's ghost. Who needs the latest horror film when the Bard will curl your toes.
Both films were turned into films for television. In the US both were run on PBS. Having seen both productions and both films I thought I'd take a brief run at telling you about the films.

KING LEAR

This is one of the best screen adaptions of Shakespeare I've seen. The film not only beautifully transfers the stage production to the screen, it also works as a damn fine film on it's own.

I'll not go into too much about the film itself, the play is a classic and well known, and I've already mentioned how good Ian McKellan is. Instead I'd like to mention the under appreciated, possibly better than McKellan performance of Sylvester McCoy as the Fool. Talk about heart breaking, McCoy hits every note right, and even some notes that I never knew were there. To me the role of the Fool has always been the one role, no matter how good or bad an adaption was, that I could count on to be at least reasonably well performed. McCoy took my expectations and blew them away. I thought the role was relatively simple. How wrong I was. It's not a simple role. Well it is if you want to get it in the ball park, but if you want it to sail over the fences and be a grand slam you have to do more, you have to shade the role, you have to make it something else. Something that bridges then with now. McCoy does that. Its amazing. He's always doing something that makes his role real. He's acting like a person even when he's not the center of attention. It was clearer on stage where you could see him always there, but here in the film he's still there, in the fringes, filling in with little things that make this all so much more real. Its a performance that isn't a performance but a real person. And almost no one noticed it because he's so good that you don't realize what it is he's doing.

Yes you should see this Lear because it's a great film. But on the other hand you should be seeing it to see Sylvester McCoy because he's given one of the greatest performances no one has paid attention to.

Macbeth

Patrick Stewart's take on the Scottish Play is an intriguing one filmicly. Opening the play outward, what was set in a stark totalitarian world on stage goes even farther into the realm of Big Brother. Its a half brother to Ian McKellan's taken on Richard III which was set in a fascist England of the 1930's. I would argue that this film is set several decades past that one when the bleakness of that world has only gotten worse.

The film is only a shadow of the stage production, it pushes things farther than they could do on stage. There are more locations, fancy editing and visual style that is hard to shake. In all honesty I don't know if I like it, but the damn thing sucked me in and dragged me along for it's three hours. It also made me put the DVD onto my wish list at Amazon so I can pick up a cheap copy down the line.

For me any version of Shakespeare that makes me forget the language and forget that I'm watching a Shakespeare play gets many points in my book. Frankly while I was watching this film I had no idea what I was watching or how it was going to come out. Before you think this is a bad thing understand that I have chunks of the play memorized (the result of too many classes where the play was the focus) and I have a great love for several film versions of the play, Throne of Blood being chief among them. I know the play and I know what happens so being able to get lost in the story is a huge plus.

Is it perfect?

No, it's too showy and several things that worked on stage, Banquo's ghost for example, don't really work on the screen. Still it's one of the better recent Shakespeare adaptions and a must see.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Who Could Kill a Child aka Island of the Damned (among others) (1976)


Uneasy horror film concerns a married couple who are on holiday. They eventually end up on an island where they suddenly realize that something is terribly wrong, all of the adults seem to be missing. It quickly becomes apparent that the children are behind it and that in order to survive they will have to kill some children.

Dark tale plays infinitely better than you think it should. This is not the simplicity of something like Children of the Corn rather it;s something more disturbing. What that something is is never explained which some how makes it worse.

Trust me, this film will disturb you.

When I first saw this film I had been warned that it was a kick in the pants. I thought, "yea, right". I even thought that when I started the film.

And then something happened. Some where along the way I started to feel it go up my back and I felt the skin crawl and I found that this film was messing with my expectations. The film is essentially the story of people surrounded and out numbered by a terrible enemy and yet they can't kill that enemy since they are programmed not to- as the title says who can kill a child?

The film was made as an allegory about children and war but the version that I had originally seen was cut by some twenty minutes and it played as a scary horror film. Thats the way I still see the film whenever I man up enough to give the film a try.

It's a damn scary movie.

The film is out on DVD according to Amazon in the shorter version that I have. I think it's fine. I know a more complete film was released at one point several years ago but that came and went quickly.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Hollywood Stadium Mystery (1938)

It's the day after Christmas so I'm going to take the idea of this being boxing day to heart and present a great little mystery about murder at a boxing match.

Neil Hamilton plays a District Attorney investigating the murder of a boxer moments before a championship fight. The fighter collapsed with no clear signs of foul play after a tribute to a recently deceased champion. Forced to match wits and trade wisecracks with a mystery writer, played by Evelyn Venable, the DA must try to contend with an arena full of suspects including Smiley Burnette.

This is a great little thriller that gets along mostly on the winning performance of the two leads and the smart quips they trade. They are a later day Nick and Nora who are forever trying to one up each other so as to win which ever five dollar bet that is currently passing between them. While the murder itself doesn't make a great deal of sense when its finally revealed, you really won't care since you'll be having too much fun watching the DA and mystery writer try to out do the other.

I have to say that the look and feel of this movie is spectacular. Looking at it you'd be hard pressed to believe that this was a B-movie with its large cast, numerous and varying sets. Actually to be honest this is what B-movies really used to be, well produced features for the second part of a double bill. If it wasn't for the B-list cast this could easily pass for a main feature.

This is little gem that's worth keeping an eye out for.(In's in many bargain bins and collections)

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Jesus Christ Saviour (2008)

In November 1971 actor Klaus Kinski decided he wanted to go on a speaking tour and present his piece Jesus Christ Savior to audiences. Kinski hadn’t appeared on stage in almost ten years and had in that time developed the reputation he still has, that of an intense, crazed actor who was impossible to work with. Many in the audience who showed up that night was hoping to see the man in action and if he wasn’t going to give them what they wanted they were ready to provoke him.

As Kinski strode to the stage the audience began to heckle him. As Kinski began to speak the heckles got worse and over the course of the evening Kinski struggled to say his piece while the audience tried to get him to react. When the night ended after 2 AM Kinski and the few remaining audience members were spent and in between the madness some magic was created.

This is the film record of what happened that night. Put together from the surviving audio recording and the recently found film of the event this is a one of a kind film experience. Rarely has any film ever forced us to stare into the heart of a performer the way this film does. Much of the recitation is front and center staring directly into Kinski’s face. There are few cutaways (during the performance) only Kinski telling a story of Jesus which is much more touching than you would expect.

The few times the film cuts away is during the interactions with the audience, as members climb on stage to speak to Kinski or as they shout at the misplaced object of their hatred

Reading on the event it seems the audience had a different idea about what they were going to see. Kinski, the rich and famous actor and noted madman was in their eyes over stepping his bounds. In choosing to perform a piece entitled Jesus Christ Savior was, in their eyes, his making himself out to be God. And in the waning days of the peace and love of the late 1960’s that sort of perceived hubris wasn’t going to stand. They went in with knives drawn looking for blood.

The sad thing is that the text of Kinski’s talk is deeply moving and very touching. It is a very much a summing up of the peace and love movement and of Jesus’s believed words. Kinski is trying to blend the old with the new and make us think about what would Jesus do if he were here today. Kinski’s performance of it is shattering and it’s sadly ruined by the people in the audience who refused to let Kinski speak. To me it’s one of the most spiritual things I’ve ever run across and I think had they sat and listened to Kinski they would have been moved and would have changed their minds and they would have understood what he was really getting at. (Kinski is quoted as saying that the mob at the show was worse than the Pharisees since at least the Pharisees let Jesus speak before they nailed him to the cross.)

The film that has been put out is real trip. In its way it probably one of the best concert films ever produced simply because it puts you into the middle of a one of a kind event in away that almost no film has. The effect is stunning and infuriating since you will very much want to move away from the road of peace and hurt the hecklers and the nuts who leap on stage. It’s a film that has both the best of the evening and the worst. The clash of the two extremes makes for an uneven experience but one that is worth seeing. I think that when Kinski finally gets to finish his talk in the company of 100 or so people who have stayed and moved to the foot of the stage, you will be strangely moved. (The finale takes place after the end credits so don’t turn off the DVD until the end)

Currently out on a regionless PAL DVD available as an import. Definitely worth looking for.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians --again and again and again


What is it about Santa Claus Conquers the Martians that generates such love and hate...or is it love to hate? This off kilter little film has been a holiday treasure for generations of people for almost 50 years. Its a clunky film that has almost every bad movie cliche you can come up with. It is a film that fits neatly into the definition of so bad it's good.

In all honesty the film itself doesn't fit the criteria for Unseen Films. Its not a lost film. Its so well known that its the punchline to any number of jokes. Its probably better known then the supposed worst film of all time, Plan Nine From Outer Space. On the other hand it's not the sort of film that would fit into our series of On Further Review films, since there is nothing to review, its a good bad movie.

I know you're wondering why in the world would I bother to post a review of the film. Well it's because the film has been used again and again and again by various outlets such as Mystery Science Theater 3000, Cinema Insomnia and Cinematic Titanic as a means of making holiday cheer. With that in mind I thought I'd take the time to to say they are the real way to see the film.

Cinema Insomnia, one of my favorite TV shows, is hosted by Mr Lobo. The show's premise is that there are no bad movies only misunderstood ones. Lobo runs the movies straight, pausing for commercials and wickedly funny host segments involving Lobo and his paramour, Miss Mittens who is a potted plant (no really she is). I love the show more than I can say since its a wonderful blending of the old monster movie shows with a modern day sensibility. Lobo and friends have crafted a wonderful little series. His episode is full of Christmas spirit and tons of laughs. (This can be had from Amazon and elsewhere and is worth the money)

Mystery Science Theater 3000 did the show as part of season three. Its real Christmas mayhem on the Satellite of Love as we have A Patrick Swayze Christmas, Misfit Toys and Christmas Essays. Its a funny little show, Its currently out as part of the two DVD Essentials package. Its packaged with the infamous Manos Hands of Fate, which is also in one of the multi-film collections.

Cinematic Titanic (one of the spin offs of MST3K) reriffs the film and to me its even funnier this time. Time has allowed the crew to come up with evenbetter riffs, some of which reference the MST3K show. (One of the funniest bit happens before the riffing starts when Trace tries to make a break for freedom when he hears that they are going to have to watch the film. Screaming "No!No!No!..." he runs off and ends up being literally dragged back to the viewing chamber. Its hysterical and the show only gets funnier and funnier as it goes on. If you must see Santa Claus Conquers the Martians, or if you want to see it for the first time, this is the way to go.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Some Christmas Carols


There are so many versions of a Christmas Carol that I seriously considered doing a week or more where everyday was a different version of the story. I think I figured it out that I could have done two solid weeks where I could have done one post a day each with a version of the tale. Thankfully sanity crept in and I thought better of it. You wouldn't want to read it and I wouldn't want to write it. However in putting together this week of Christmas related posts I realized that I would have to do one of the film versions just because I felt I had to. The trick was which version? I couldn't really pick one because every time I did another one screamed at me that I should pick that one instead. Because there are a couple of films I really wanted spot light I'm going to mention a three of my favorite versions.

A Christmas Carol (2009)
I hate the motion capture films of Robert Zemekis. They are a weird combination of live action and cartoon that rarely comes together. Most of the time when they work, it's as in Beowulf as thrill ride (come on the ending with the dragon is a blast in 3D). Unfortunately the films don't work, the scripts fall flat and the films fizzle. (I won't get into Zemekis' visual choices which create character designs that look like they were done by blind cave dwelling eels that have never seen what real people, or even cartoon people look like. The choices are so awful that Zemekis should be prevented from doing films in this style- I mean how brain damaged do you have to be to make things look that unreal? And it's a choice they made willingly, which blows my mind. Want proof, there is a shot at the end of A Christmas Carol where they make things look real and it's so much better.)

Anyway as much as I hate the style, I do have to say that the animated version of the story that was put out by Zemekis and crew with Jim Carrey in the lead is one of the best versions I've ever seen. It's an amazing piece of film making with the filmmakers staying very close to the feel of the story. Only when the film resorts to some showy travel bits that seem to have been inserted for the 3D audience does the film fall down. The dialog is very close to the book and if you're like me, you'll be able to recite many of the lines, some because they are from the novel, but others because they are so on target that that is what the line has to be.

I loved this film when I saw it. It was an emotion I never expected to have since I hate the character design. (Why they didn't use the realistic features that the Alfred E Newman like face of Bob Crachit morphs into at the end is beyond me.)

A Christmas Carol ( )
This version of the classic tale with Patrick Stewart in the lead is based in part on Stewart's one man version of the tale. It's a version that Stewart has performed in the West End of London and on Broadway. I'm told seeing it live is even better than listening to the recording of it that is out on CD. (An aside. While I didn't get to see Stewart's version live I did get to see Charles Dickens Great Grandson perform a version of the story that Dickens himself would perform. It was done in an old church on the East Side of Manhattan and was a magical experience.)

Made for TBS on American cable this version is close to being my favorite version of the story. Its one of the few versions where we feel the change in Scrooge not only from miser to nice guy but we also feel it at the start, we see why he goes the miser route (This is also something the Jim Carrey gets dead nuts right as well). We see how he arcs. I love that the cast is spot on and that it sells every moment.

The sole flaw in the entire production is that whom ever put the film together cut the film in such away that the story doesn't flow naturally. The film runs on DVD a scant 90 minutes. The brevity of the story was due to the limitations of having the film have to fit into a two hour block of TV time with commercials. It's cuts the life out of the film, especially early on in Scrooge's past which is rushed is rushed through to the point that events don't mean anything. A few other moments fade out as if to commercial however when the film picks up we've jumped through time and space. I hate it and I always feel short changed.

On the other hand when the film gets it right it sings. There is such joy at Scrooges redemption that we are truly joyous when Scrooge finally sees the light. I love it.

SCROOGE (1970)
This is my favorite version of the story, Thank You Very Much.

This is a musical version of the story with Albert Finney as Scrooge and Alec Guiness is Marley.

Its a joyous celebration of life and the season that I've watched every year almost with out fail since I first saw it on a huge screen at the old Felt Forum at Madison Square Garden in grammar school. (Thank you Mr Wickie where ever you are, you were the best teacher a person could ever hope for)

I love this film more than you can say. I can sing a good number of the songs, Thank You Very Much, Father Christmas, The Ministers Cat, and of course I Like Life. They are my Christmas Carols and hearing them puts me in the mood for the season. And while it is not perfect, there are two clunky songs and the Christmas Past section isn't up to the rest of the film, but the rest is WOW.Once Kenneth More shows up as Christmas Present this film just goes straight on to morning.

It will make you smile from ear to ear.

There is nothing more I can say about the film other than you really must see this film if you want to feel good.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Nothing Like The Holidays (2008)


Multicultural holiday soap about a Latino family that gets together for Christmas and to welcome home one of their number from Iraq. There is triumph and tragedy and everything you'd expect from a film like this including laughs, tears, and a warm fuzzy feeling.

Good solid family drama Shines thanks to a super cast (Alfred Molina, Elizabeth Pena, John Leguizamo, Luis Guzman, etc etc). What initially drew me to this film was the cast. How could anyone pass this up with a cast comprised of so many of the best character actors of the age in one place. Best of all they are all allowed to play roles that are not their typical roles. These are real people that you know. To be certain the story is a bit cliché, but the cast handles it with a great skill and they turn all of their characters into real people. Even Debra Messing as the one Caucasian in the bunch is fine, once she sheds the fish out of water shtick she's handed. It's so nice to see what real actors can do to turn a well worn tale of a holiday homecoming into something touching and affecting.

Trust me, you want to track this one down. It's a film that slipped through the cracks when it was ever so briefly released to theaters, and I think it's gotten lost now that it's out on DVD. Don't let the the few bad reviews keep you from seeing this. I almost listened to them, and I almost missed a super little film.

Worth a look and repeated revisits.

This is out on DVD and it's on cable.

This Christmas (2007)


What a wonderful film this is.

Nominally a Christmas story, this is really just the story of a family coming together; it just happens to be for the holidays. The kids are scattered and Mom is living in sin with a man, but she doesn't want the kids to know...so every time they come over he moves out. The kids of course have problems and secrets and some of them come together, but eventually it ALL comes together.

This is a story that could take place in any family anywhere, only here the family just happens to be black. I only mention the color aspect because there is a single moment where color plays a role. Ultimately color and race are irrelevant since this is an excellent little film about the things that make us family, whatever our color. If one were to alter that one moment this film could be any family. I know some people who wouldn't watch this film because they thought it was going to be an urban drama. It wasn't until they listened to my pleas or happened to just catch it on cable before they realized that this is a story about anybody.

It helps that the film has a strong cast, including the always excellent Delroy Lindo, so that what occasionally slips into clichéd territory, always remains something more universal. Frankly these are real people up on the screen and any clichés reflect that life is something like that.

Huge bonus points for the fact that there really aren't any movie of the week problems or histrionics. Things happen, but the family takes it all in stride without a great deal of gnashing of teeth and rending of clothes.

I really like this movie a great deal and I'm always looking forward to seeing it again.

I'd rate this 8 out of 10. I want to thank the filmmakers for making a truly universal family drama that is just good time with good people.

This is very much deserving of a longer better review but I haven't figured out how to explain the tapestry of the film with out making it sound petty or less than it is.

On DVD and in rotation on cable.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Alice In Wonderland (1933)


Nothing screams Christmas time better than Alice in Wonderland….

Seriously, when I was watching this film a few weeks ago all I could think was this would be perfect for Christmas. I really don’t know why, but that’s what I thought.

Paramount’s 1933 adaption of the story mashes the two novels (Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) by Lewis Carrol together to form a tale that touches many of the high points. It manages to be a film that in a weird way is very nostalgic while at the same time coming across as a fevered nightmare (a line I stole from the Brooklyn Academy Of Music's description of the film).

The film begins on a snowy day as Alice is home with her Aunt. She is playing with her cat and annoying her Aunt with nonsense. She muses about what the room would be like when seen from the other side of the large mirror over the mantel. When her Aunt leaves the room she climbs up on the mantel and somehow manages to cross over into a room that is the reverse of the one she was in. Fearing that time is short and wanting to see what was through the doors, she hurries out of the room and ends up in the yard where she follows the rabbit down the hole. From there it's a mix of characters and events from the two novels.

The film is oddly one of the better Alice adaptations I’ve seen. Part of the reason for this is Alice is not a twit, which she is in the book, and many film versions. I actually can imagine seeing the film more than once, something that I don’t want to do with most other Alice films.

The selling point of it is the cast of Paramount stars who show up in garish, actually grotesque, make-up. Most of the stars are completely unrecognizable, and if the film didn’t point who was who you probably would never know who they were. Cary Grant is the Mock Turtle, which entails a suit that completely hides him. Gary Cooper is the White Knight, and he too is unrecognizable, except for his voice (Grant is completely submerged in his character). The make-up itself is as I said grotesque, with some of the heavily made-up faces being more monsters than people. The masks and the suits the actors wear are amazing, and of the sort that remind one of the kind of suits one might have had in Victorian England. Think sort of a twisted Currier and Ives.

There is something hypnotic about the film, and I found myself falling into it. I was adrift with Alice on her adventure, and it was surprising me at every turn. I mean I know the stories, but how Paramount put them together makes them something new.

I really liked it, though I can't completely tell you why. It's out on DVD so if you're a fan of Alice, or of strange Hollywood spectacles, or just curious I'd give it a try.

Monday, December 20, 2010

A Wish For Wings That Work (1991)

For fans of the old newspaper comic strips Bloom County and Outland, A Wish For Wings That Work is either a charming interpretation of Berkeley Breathed's transition to children's books, or a misrepresentation of his more biting satire in the aforementioned strips. The half-hour made-for-TV special (which uncut & without commercials runs about 23 minutes), has the look and feel of his first children's book effort, upon which this was based. There is some beautiful pastel-like scenery throughout the special, which is contrasted by some of the less-than-beautiful characters that populated the world of Outland, Breathed's at-the-time strip.

Your opinion of the special will vary depending on what you think of the voice chosen for Opus, the lead character. If you are a diehard fan of Bloom County, and already had a sound picked for Opus in your head, and this doesn't match it, you may have a hard time getting around that. But if you're willing to just go with what is presented, which is a soft and thoughtful voice, right for his character, you'll be able to enjoy the story of a frustrated penguin who just wants what seemingly all the other birds on the planet have; the ability to fly.

Since this is a Christmas story, Santa Claus does make an appearance, and by way of appearing helps to show Opus things aren't as bad as he thinks, despite his flightlessness. There is a very clever gag involving footage from 1937's Lost Horizon, and along the way there are a few jokes thrown in involving Bill The Cat (another Bloom County veteran), Milquetoast The Cockroach (originally from Bloom County, but more prominently featured in Outland, and voiced here by Dustin Hoffman), and a one-off character George The Kiwi (voiced by Robin Williams), who seems to suffer from a severe case of wing envy...

The biggest drawback to this on DVD is the fact that it is the ONLY thing on the DVD. There are NO extras on it, and seeing as how the feature is only 23 minutes, that's not good...can you say NetFlix? This may have something to do with Breathed's complete disowning of it, due to a variety of reasons. Despite that, it is a really charming little special, which will mean more to you if you are a Bloom County fan, but is enjoyable even if you're not.

Christmas week links, updates and fun stuff

Christmas is the end of the week and I'd like to take a few moments out to do some quick updates and give some links before everyone is swamped with wrapping and other fun stuff.

First up for those of you not reading Bully's comics blog, I need to point out that he's posting old Christmas commericals under the heading Christmas Commercial Countdown. Everyday it's a new commercial until Christmas. The whole run to date cane be found here. Go watch them then come back here.

Reg, one of our fine correspondents has posted his Very Pelican Club Christmas which is full of wonderful holiday treats.

One of my all Time favorite Christmas films was reviewed way back at the start. It's called the Holly and the Ivy and is best described as a Christmas film for those who hate Christmas films.

For those who are interested in the Spiderman Broadway show the latest story is that the show's opening is being pushed back again into February. I don't know if that is going to help. Honestly I while I though the show wasn't all that good but I thought that radical changes could save it (removing the entire second act for example). However now I think they've shot themselves in the foot thanks to the postponement. From the questions I was getting around the watercooler at work, I think they've made it seem like the show is in dire circumstances (it is) and really not very good. Anyone I know who had a wait and see attitude have no interest now and feel that unless the word of mouth and official reviews are sterling they are going to pass.

I don't want to beat up too badly on Julie Taymor who directed Spiderman, but I had the misfortune of seeing her film adaption of The Tempest over the weekend. Well actually I saw about 45 minutes before I left because I was laughing too hard. In her favor the cast is good (though no one seems to be in the same movie) and some it looks great. On the other hand it looks to be the work of someone who never made a movie in their life. To my mind it appears she used bad music videos and really arty Euro-thrillers from the early 1980's as a visual reference. The easiest way to describe the film is as the worst Shakespeare adaptation of probably the last 15 or 20 years. While one can hold out hope for the turnaround of Spiderman the musical, The Tempest is beyond saving. I have to question how this got to be the centerpiece of this years New York Film Festival. Did they take it sight unseen or did some one see it and genuinely like it?

Speaking of liking things...

I've begun work on my Best and Worst lists of films I saw this year. They will be brief since I've discovered that I've written up all of the best fiklms for this blog. As for the worst films, well, frankly they are so bad that the less said the better. (for now The Tempest did not make the list)

Mysteries of Lisbon has won the Louis Delluc Prize in France. While I was not a big fan of the film when I saw it October at the New York Film Festival, I did like it.

Does context matter when you see a movie? IFC online examines it here.

I've corrected a glaring omission and I've put up a link to the reviews at 10,000 Bullets in the sidebar. Its a wondrful site that will tell you whats what with your exploitation, foreign and not mainstream movies on DVD. Its one of the best and can only hope that they forgive me for leaving them out of the great movie writing list.

By now you've heard they've found 17 0f the 19 minutes that Stanley Kubrick cut from 2001 after it was playing at the Cinarama in New York. A brief piece can be found here.

Want to make your own Muppet? FAO Schwarz can help. I found it thanks to a sweet article linked at IMDB about how a man used them to propose to his long time girlfriend. See that piece here.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Rex Steele Nazi Smasher (2004)


Done in the style of a 1940's serial this all too brief film has Rex Steele going to the jungles of South America to smash Nazis. Hurray for our side!

This movie is a blast and a half. It's a perfect evocation of the old movie serials (and trust me I've seen three quarters of them). This movie starts and goes like a bandit with some of the best animation to come off of an American animators drawing board in years. If nothing else you will be amazed at the flying scenes.

The only flaw is that the film, like the serials it apes, ends on a cliffhanger with you wanting to see more. I was so desperate for more Rex Steele I had to watch the DVD a couple more times in a row.

Where is the rest of this? I would gladly pay to see the remaining 14 chapters of Steele's adventures. The guys involved are somehow connected to Pixar, who could easily continue their string of hits by putting a Rex Steele feature into the cue.

See this film. You will love it.

10 out of 10, and a grin from ear to ear.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

La Jetée (1962)

"...no memories, no plans..."

La Jetée should have the alternate title, The Anti-Motion Picture. A brilliant film, it is a montage of black & white still photographs, accompanied by sparse narration, an appropriately haunting music score, and perfectly simple (and simply perfect) sound effects. It is perhaps the best example of efficient use of a budget, and proves that storytelling is the most important aspect of any narrative art form.

A man in a post-apocalyptic future is thrown into the past in an attempt to rescue humanity from its current troubles. However, the real thrust of the story is the image our time-travelling protaganist has from childhood, that of a beautiful woman he saw one day on the pier (La Jetée) at Orly Airport near Paris, France. It is his strong, near-obsession with that memory that allows him to be transported thru time. It is a statement by the filmmaker, Chris Marker, of the power that women can have over men, and this particular manifestation of that idea was cribbed for the first Terminator film. In that picture, Kyle Reese was sent back from the future to save Sarah Connor, and tells her he travelled thru time because he is in love with her.

A much lengthier adaptation of La Jetée was the film 12 Monkeys, directed by Terry Gilliam, that came out in 1995. As good as that film is in its own right, the far better version, due to the simpler, more efficient, and more effective way of getting the story across, is the original. Marker was working on La Jetée while the Cold War was in its heyday, right in the midst of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and that apocalytpic mushroom cloud of fear and paranoia that hung in the air shows in the film as well.

This is a film that should be seen by anyone and everyone, and none fewer than that. In particular, anyone considering MAKING a film should watch this before embarking on that route, not to discourage them, but to show them that there are better ways to tell stories than by simply inserting meaningless, mindless violence, or, in the case of major Hollywood pictures, to have no plot and things blowing up for 90 minutes. In the course of a relatively quiet roughly 28 minutes, the viewer is moved deeply, and greatly concerned about the outcome of the characters, because of the quality of the storytelling. It's as simple as that.

Available on DVD via Criterion, paired with another film by Marker, Sans Soleil, previously written up by DB on this site back in June. The DVD contains numerous extras, including a 44 page booklet with a couple short essays by Marker, and an interview with him.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Follow My Voice: WIth The Music Of Hedwig (2006)


This is the story of the recording of "Wig In A Box", a tribute album featuring the music of the show and movie Hedwig And The Angry Inch, done as a benefit for the Harvey Milk School. The Harvey Milk School is a school primarily for gay, lesbian or trans-gendered kids in New York City. The story of the recording of the album is inter-cut with the story of four kids who go to the school.

I loved the show of "Hedwig" when I saw it in New York. It was an earth shaking, life affirming experience. The story of a transsexual semi-rock star looking for love is ultimately one that we all can relate to...who isn't looking for love? It has a score that is absolutely one of the best ever written for the stage. I turned on several people to the show by playing them the score. The music for me has become part of my life, so when the tribute album came out I snapped it up. Now to be able to see how the album came together is a treat. Here are people who understood what made the play, and the songs resonate through everyone who ever came upon them.

Adding a glorious dimension to the film is seeing the lives of four kids who are in their way Hedwigs. We see their lives and how they are just trying to get by and thrive in their worlds. It's a wonderful portrait of some kids who thought they were outsiders with nowhere to go, but who lucked out and who found a place to not only belong but to allow them to accept themselves.

It's moving beyond words.

SEE this movie. You will feel good.

For those of you who have never seen the show of "Hedwig", this is movie will make you feel the way the show did (not the movie, the show; this is what the movie should have been).

This is magical.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Martyrs (2008)


A young girl escapes from someone who was abusing her. While in the hospital she meets a girl who will become her friend. Years later the two girls track down the people responsible for the abuse and...well, that's the movie. What starts off as a simple revenge tale quickly becomes something else, something different, something more disturbing.

I had heard a good number of stories about how twisted, horrible and horrifying this French film was. I was prepared for something that fell into the category of torture porn, but I wasn't prepared for what I actually got. This actually lived up to its billing, where say the equally praised High Tension did not. This is a slowly building tale that is unnerving from the get go and only gets worse. It starts off as one thing, then changes and changes again. It then plays out each new twist for as far as it can go before changing again. It's a pattern that's repeated several times over the course of the film. It keeps you on your toes and makes it impossible to steel yourself for the next thing.

What makes Martyrs difficult to dismiss as just another torture porn film (and trust me this is as close to one as one can get), is that the film has more on its mind than just torture. This is not just the cruelty of Saw or Hostel, or any of the other films that are essentially a madman carving some one up (Laid To Rest anyone?). There is a weird rationale to it. You may argue that I'm splitting hairs, but trust me I've seen enough to know what is what and where to draw the line between frivolous violence, and violence for the plot.

I'd love to discuss this film in greater detail, but to do so might take the edge off the film. Not knowing where it's going is what makes the film so powerful. Having your expectations confounded and destroyed is what disturbs the hell out of you. We in the audience are left shaken and stunned, wondering what the hell we saw.

The film works because of how it's filmed. The cinematography is polished, as are the locations; these are not run-down, depraved places.

The story construction is clever. It's a series of ever expanding boxes that take us as far as we can go without things collapsing on themselves.

The performances are real. These are real people. They are not just figures behaving according to movie laws; rather they are people behaving in ways that people might. Certainly the blind rage that fuels the revenge is palpable. The behavior, for all of its cruelty, is understandable. We have the girl who wants revenge and was pushed to the point of animistic violence. And the people who are looking for answers are the sort of academic Nimrods who don't think, and don't feel that scientific niceties apply to them (Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan anyone?). I'm not condoning the violence, I'm just explaining that in context it does work. Strangely, other than the gashes and the final bit of nastiness, much of the gore is fleeting with the level of blood relatively low. It's our minds that inflict the pain and suffering way beyond the levels of what we see.

Months after seeing the film I can't shake it. It's frightening and disturbing. More so in that it actually seems to be about something. It's not some nut job running about like Texas Chainsaw or Friday The 13th or Halloween. There is something there. I really do feel that way. I don't think the film would be as disturbing if it was just a shape killing cattle. There is some kernel of truth in there that will not let me let the film go, nor will it let me even consider dismissing it.

Certainly I can't dismiss this any more than I could the work of Gaspar Noe, whose films like Irreversible or I Stand Alone are equally brutal, but less fantastical. I don't know what the director might think of my take on the film; he seems to want to distance himself from it. Nor do I know if he meant anything beyond a calling card or horror film, but even if he didn't I think he's fashioned a film that does have something more than violence and uncomfortableness. I do think this film has a reason to exist beyond the profit motive.

You will probably be repulsed by the film.

I am on many levels and yet at the same time I'm fascinated by it. This is a film that is a trip on the dark side that is more than just torture porn. It is not just a catalog of pain and suffering. There is a twisted reasoning behind it (and in a weird way a historical precedent which makes it even more bothersome). Speaking in a video introduction the director admits to not being comfortable for having made the film, and invites the audience to hate him for doing it.

I'm not comfortable admiring the film.

Not for the squeamish, this is a head trip for those who think they can take it. I thought I could and yet it still messed me up. Most amazingly, one of the final images, one of the least graphic, is one of the things that disturbed me the most.

A bloody, blood soaked masterpiece only for those who want to stare into the abyss. Reluctantly it may be one of the best films I saw in 2009.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Danny The Dog (aka Unleashed) (2005)


No, it's not perfect, but the emotional punch is awesome.

Jet Li is Danny, Bob Hoskins' "dog". He's a trained killer who shows no mercy once the collar comes off. He's emotionally still a child and barely speaks. Through circumstance he's thrown together with Morgan Freeman and his stepdaughter. Over the course of weeks Danny becomes human. The three become a family. Things are fine until Hoskins reappears and wants Danny back.

There's more to it than that but its enough to go on.

Wow and wow. And WOW.

This is going to annoy many people who want a straight action film. This is not that sort of film. This is what is called a character driven action film, or a drama with violence, since the fights are secondary to the humans, something most action directors seem to forget these days. The fights are at the start and the end, and it's all drama for the rest of it. All tension and emotion (and there is a great deal of both) come out of the characters and what you feel about them. You feel and are moved because you care. Even the violence changes as Danny changes.

Amazing.

Jet Li is fantastic as Danny, and if you only know him from action films you're in for a treat. He breaks your heart. His co-stars are equally wonderful.

See this movie. Remove any expectations, but see this movie.

I can't say enough good about it.

God On Trial (2008)


Inmates at Auschwitz put God on trial for breaking the covenant.

This was run earlier in the season as part of Masterpiece (PBS) modern block of tales. Based on an actual trial, it is a deeply affecting story about a group of men attempting to find out why God has abandoned them, and whether he has broken the agreement that he made with their forefathers. It is set entirely within one barracks during the time that they are waiting to have their numbers called. Those chosen will go off to die, for it seems that a train has arrived early and there is no place for the new arrivals.

It is a heady discussion of despair and hope. Has God abandoned them? Does God exist? What is the nature of God? These are the thoughts of men waiting to die, men with little left to lose. It is a discussion that will get your mind working. The answers they come up with might surprise you.

The film will also touch you.

I tend to be immune to Holocaust tales with name stars in it since the pretty faces never seem to be in anything more than a dress up tale, but here I was moved. The cast, which includes Dominic Cooper, Stephen Dillane, Rupert Graves, Anthony Sher, and Stellan Skarsgård, is first rate with only Skarsgård recognizable under the dirt and bruises.

In most films of this sort the filmmakers hit certain cliché marks, but none of that is here. It is simply men waiting to be chosen, pondering their existence and their humanity. I should point out that the film is cross-cut across time with a tour of the barracks and the gas chambers now. The modern story is not intrusive, and in its way actually helps move things along, with one of the final scenes very likely to bring tears to your eyes.

I highly recommend this film to anyone who wondered about God and the death of 12 million people or just about God in general.

On DVD and in the rotation of Masterpiece on PBS

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Skycrawlers (2008)


Mamoru Oshii's film utterly confounded most of the people around me at the New York screening that marked the film's East Coast US premiere. There were lots of "What the hell was that" and "I liked it up to the end"...which was really not the end. Oshii appeared in a recorded message prior to the screening welcoming us to the New York premiere, saying a few words about the film, and admonishing us to stay to the end. What he didn't specify was after the end credits another five minute sequence takes place, so half the audience was gone by the time it ran...and it alters things. The main message Oshii gave us was that the film is about children who are pilots who don't grow up.

This is the story of a world that's like our own but different. It's a place where corporations seem to control everything, and everyone is engaged in a war that is actually more like a national game. Fighting the war are the eternally young kildren, young adults who never age and who can die only if they do so in combat. Into this mix (or rather to an outpost of four planes), comes a new pilot, a nice young man who seems to feel he remembers being here before. Of course he's wrong, but everything is a blur.

I don't know how much more to tell you. The story that spins out from one of the most incredible sky-battle sequences put on film is something that really needs to be seen on its own terms to be truly appreciated. What I can say is that the flying sequences, rendered in hyper-realistic animation, are amazing. They are the reason to see the film on a movie screen, preferably a BIG movie screen, if you get the chance. They are truly amazing, utterly beautiful...and terrifying.

I have to make it clear; the sky sequences are not what the film is about. The film is about the pilots and their commander who face the day to day existence of getting by and fighting a war. The film deals with the daily grind of the people involved, and you get to feel what their lives are like. At the same time it's very deliberately paced. The film is what could be best described as slow. I didn't mind, but some people around me did, wanting to know why there wasn't more action. Actually the action is almost an afterthought, or a way of punctuating the themes and ideas Oshii has running around in his head. This is not a film of physical motion but of the intellectual.

What the people around me didn't seem to grasp was that this is a film by Mamoru Oshii. While he may have made Ghost In The Shell, he's also made some other really wild and trippy films about the nature of reality, memory, what it is to be human, and other ideas. As an intellectual work it's firing on all cylinders. Oshii has made a film that is about all of that and more, including the nature of war and the world. The action is secondary to the human story since the human story is where all of the meat is. The story of the new guy slowly morphs in several other directions, including a mystery of sorts. The solution may appear to be obvious, but it raises other more intriguing themes, like who are we really (I don't dare mention some of the others, since to fully explore them will reveal major plot points).

In my humble opinion this is a great film. When the film REALLY ended, I begand talking about it with the friend I went with, and we didn't stop talking about it until I left him on the train almost three hours later. Yes, there were other subjects discussed during that time, but we kept coming back to the film (he liked it but didn't love it; however he agreed that there is SOMETHING to the film, because it forces you to be engaged in a dialog about it). Not only does Oshii discuss big ideas, but there are so many plot points and world points that are thrown out there and never resolved that you can just keep pondering what happens at times. If you like films that you think about, and argue about, and which go their own way, you will love this movie.

Let me be honest; I doubt most people are going to like this film. I don't know if most people are going to "get" this film. I think most are going to wonder why there is not more action and why it's "so slow". I know the people around me were wondering if that was it, as if the lack of a clear resolution (especially when they didn't stay through the credits) somehow made the film something less then it was. I liked the lack of complete closure since it allowed my mind to wonder (besides you can see how the story may continue).

If you can take it on its own terms, and take it for the film of ideas it is, I think you'll like it, possibly even love it. Don't fight it. And DO stay through the end credits, since what's there is important (think of the credits as a natural break. It is one of the few films I've ever seen where the final sequence needs to be there, and needs the break of several minutes to function as it does). One of the best films of 2008.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark

I'm going to go off the board and for a brief instant talk about something that has almost nothing to do with movies except in a very loosely connected way.

Those of you who know me in the real world kItalicnow that not only do I love movies, but I'm also a fan of theater and of comic books. So when the opportunity to see the new Broadway show Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark came up last Thursday I took it.

The lovely Eden, one of the contributors here at Unseen Films and who runs the Comicsgirl blog asked me to write up my thoughts on the show and she's posted them here. For those who are looking to know what I thought before clicking the link you can probably guess by the title: The Destruction of Spiderman, that I didn't care for it much. (Its spectacular but ultimately it's a betrayal of a character that has has survived 50 years in the comics, on TV and in the movies). You can follow the link to see my thoughts. (Actually you should be reading the blog since it's a really good look at comics that matter).