C.H.U.D.

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As a Halloween treat, I decided to watch a campy so bad it’s good horror film. A couple of years ago Criterion Collection decided as an April Fool’s joke to announce that C.H.U.D. was going to be in their collection. The nerd community was in a joyous uproar only to have their hopes dashed when it turned out to be fake. I didn’t know what this movie was before I heard the news, but ever since it has been on my radar.

C.H.U.D. stands for Cannibalistic Human Underground Dweller. Basically this is a riff on a monster movie. Something goes bump in the night and they are homeless people who have been exposed to nuclear radiation. A cranky photographer, a fuck the man soup kitchen operator and a police captain investigate separately the odd developments in their clientele. Lots of underground tunnels are explored, angry monologues are uttered and murky goings on are covered up. All in all some great stuff happens on-screen.

This movie could only have been made in the Reagan era, the same era that coined the phrase “welfare queen.” Poor were routinely demonized and then ignored by several different governmental officials. This film warns that if you ignore the poor long enough, they will rise up and eat you. Combine this with increased paranoia about radioactive materials and you have a sticky situation.

Everyone in this film oozes with earnestness. Each word is stressed with the same amount of vigor and convention. This results in some silly exchanges that seem to carry the same weight as real plot development dialogue.

The film wasn’t full of laughs at the actors expense or extremely gory imagery. It was mostly a film that took a silly subject ultra seriously and only half succeeds. But I had a good time and that it is all that matters in for these films.

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The Awakening

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In my journey to fill some horror gaps, I have yet to find a movie that was actually scary. Session 9 came the closest, but I might not have been as invested as the film wanted me to be in order to find the goings on truly creepy. Instead I just found the film to be an excellent study of a descent into madness. But with the Awakening, I got a true horror film.

Florence, played by the excellent Rebecca Hall, is a professional debunker of ghosts in early twenties London. She is called to a boarding school in order to investigate the killing of a young boy after he saw a ghost. But the investigation is more than what meets the eye. Things start to unravel for her once she figures out the human sham. She starts to see real ghosts.

This film is more about ghosts. It is about a country still reeling from the atrocities of World War I. Some small part of Florence doesn’t want to find out what is behind the ghost hoaxes she investigates. She wants to believe that there is a way to communicate with her dead loved ones. The teacher that comes to her for help, Robert Mallory, suffers from excruciating survivor guilt. His losses in fighting in the war had more impact then the damage that was done to his leg. The war is something that lingers in everybody’s minds. It informs every emotion they have, every tick they generate, even what they choose their profession to be. The past haunts them just as much as the ghosts do.

The Awakening is very effective for the first two acts. The heavy sense of loneliness, coupled with the creepy setting in a maudlin estate and the mystery combine together to really creep me out. But once the third act starts, the horror and the mystery fall apart. The filmmaker takes on a couple too many revelations and twists for the story to hold any weight. The digital effects were also I felt unneeded. What is more scary than a child that no one else can see? Do we really need a digital smearing of his face to heighten that tension? I personally would say no.

This movie could easily be put in the same camp as The Others or The Orphanage and I would welcome it there. Despite its third act problems, I found this film to be my favorite of all the horror films I watched this month. Florence is an interesting enough character to solider through mere plot holes and bad effects.

The Jazz Singer (1927)

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The Jazz Singer would go down in history as the first feature-length film to incorporate sound into the production. “You ain’t heard nothing yet,” constantly makes canon lists of the best lines of film. It also ushered in a new film genre, the musical, that would come to dominate the studio offerings for decades afterward. But none of this gets to the real content of the film. Should the Jazz Singer be just a curious period piece or should it also be considered a great film? Before I answer this let me give you the plot summary.

Al Jolson (who was a very famous Broadway singer and whose origin story somewhat echoes the storyline of the movie) plays a young Jewish man living in New York City. His father is the Cantor (or singer of the Torah) in the local synagogue. This position has been in the family for five generations and he is expected to take up the same line of work. But Jakie (Al Jolson) wants nothing more than to sing jazz. He defies his father and takes off on a career path to accomplish this goal. Enter the woman interest, a rise from small clubs to the big times, a timely reuniting with the father on his deathbed and lots of singing and you essentially have the plot of the film.

One of the most troubling parts of this film is that Jakie performs “Mammy” songs in black face for a good portion of it. This choice of that the screenwriter and filmmaker to do this was originally to highlight Jakie’s love for his real mother through the songs he performs. But what it ultimately did, as the film grew older and we as a population learned that such things are harmful to the population being lambasted, was make the modern viewer highly uncomfortable. I was so uncomfortable in fact that I had to avert my eyes and focus on my phone, something I, on principle, try not to do. I had to be taken out of the picture by using my phone in order to truly cope with the picture on-screen. This usually only happens if I am watching something particularly gory. To me that nonchalant use of blackface was gory. It triggers my white guilt. It is hard to get past.

Beyond the black face problem, the film suffered from the odd juxtaposition of sound with no sound. The technology hadn’t advanced by this point to not necessitate the need for title cards explaining the action. So you had markers of a silent picture put right up next to a vocal banter between Al and his mother in between a song. It begs the question why couldn’t it all be sound? Well because that would be straining the technology too much. Some shorts had been voice tracked and some features had synchronized music before this feature, but the process was laborious and costly. I had to remind myself this at every turn.

Al Jolson was primarily a singer by profession, not an actor. So when he is singing, he is in his comfort zone. You can see how he was able to become so famous in his day. He does interesting things with his pitch and his phrasing. But the moment the film transitioned back into silent and he had to act, he fell apart. There was a whole scene where he is supposed to be conflicted about whether or not he should go see his dad and sing the Torah. This scene calls for intense emotion that can only, by necessity, be expressed in the face and body posture. Instead of tension, he has a smile on his face. He is the middle of putting on his makeup when he is told his father is dying and he still puts it on with a bouncy irreverence. He just could not be expressive when he didn’t have his songs to lean on. This is a problem because it is essentially his story and he is our emotional guide. Without him, other scenes that he isn’t in prominently also fall apart because the emotional guide isn’t as strong as it should be.

I honestly would not recommend watching this film unless you feel the need that you have to see it in order to better understand film history. (like I foolishly thought) What I learned from watching the film wasn’t anything I couldn’t have learned from the excerpts put online of the film or reading a book about it. In fact watching the whole film taints your viewpoint of this crucial part of film history. The big moguls get their hands on radical ways to put sound on pictures and the first thing they produce is a horrible racist travesty? Come on people think for one instant before you decide to sign off on something so awful.

Platoon

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I have never been a fan of Oliver Stone’s work. I want to like him, but I am usually can’t get past his pension for wanting to bludgeon his ideals and themes into our heads. His subtlety is nonexistent which is his cardinal sin. His lack of subtlety wrecked the horrible biopic The Doors, the annoying Wall Street, and the trying so hard to be edgy Natural Born Killers. But his lack of subtlety is different when it is thrown in towards a wider area. In the previous three movies I mentioned was trying to thrust his “message” onto the shoulders of two main characters who collapse under the pressure. But with Platoon, there are many people in the film who can take on his themes and run with them. Here is the key to his success in this movie.

Platoon is about an idealistic man who volunteers to be an infantryman during the Vietnam War. He is thrown into a platoon where he is the greenest man. He is not prepared for the mental and physical anguish he is about to endure. He finds solace in his fellow platoon members, only to be thrown in the middle of some inter platoon fighting. More than the Vietnamese, he fears his fellow soldiers.

Oliver Stone obviously had a personal connection to this subject matter. He was that idealistic man in the mid sixties. He was thrown into the jungle and made to fight an almost invisible enemy. He is able to capture here just how harsh the circumstances were and how much mental damage was done to those poor men stuck in a foreign country.Platoon captures the real aspects of war better than other Vietnam War movies during this time.

Although I mostly enjoyed the film, I still did not completely get away from Stone’s lack of subtlety. During the first scene, the young solider steps off of a plane just as bodies are being put in the plane to go back. This visual image was an obvious way to say the only way out of here is in a body bag. There are other problems with the story including some paper-thin characters, confusing battle scenes where I didn’t know what exactly was supposed to be happening and obvious visual cues to signify that they are in Vietnam and war is hell. But despite these things, the emotions and the performances help to solidify this film as the best Oliver Stone movie I have seen.

Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer

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Last year Russia made headlines once again for their repressive tactics. Pussy Riot, a band made up of an evolving door of ski mask clad women, stormed the altar of the most sacred spot in Russia and created a spectacle. Their ensuing capture and trial was a public relations nightmare for the country in the world’s eyes. But why did these women do this? And why was it such a huge deal? This documentary decides to answer these two very complicated questions and mostly succeeds.

What I found most compelling about this film wasn’t the interviews with the very supportive parents or the chunks of history, but the rhetoric Pussy Riot created for themselves. Each woman was articulate and intellectual. They had a reason behind everything they did. They wore brightly colored ski masks because they wanted to be anonymous but they also didn’t want to appear like criminals. They decided to place their protest in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour as a comment on how religion is just a pawn in Putin’s dictatorial hold on Russia. And what they were saying in their complete song wasn’t supposed to be offensive to the regular church goer, but supposed to be a message to Putin himself. The women stood up for themselves, challenged the court and cared about what they were doing the whole time. To juxtapose these earnest women with the Orthodox Church’s reaction to the situation is a study in contrasts. The filmmakers follow around a group of men called the Keepers of the Cross. These men are sport traditional Russian beards, have skulls on their shirts and wear leather vests. They were appalled by these women and commented that they have demons inside them. At one point one man commented that in the sixteenth century they would just burn them at the stake for being witches. Attacking a couple of women with such vile words  who were on your altar for a mere sixty seconds seems like overkill to me.

Outside of the speeches they made, the interviews with the parents and the footage of Pussy Riot performing, I still felt like I didn’t get a completely detailed picture of these three women. There were facts of the case that were murky and glossed over. But all of these things can be easily forgiven for the chance to see these women’s story come to life.

A Face in the Crowd

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Most people remember Andy Griffith from the Andy Griffith Show. For many growing up in that era and beyond (thanks to syndication even I, who is drastically younger than the original audience, have seen some episodes), Andy Griffith was a lovable sheriff who spouted out folksy wisdom cut down in convenient half hour chunks. But everyone had to start somewhere. Andy Griffith debuted with a smash in an oddly prophetic role in A Face in the Crowd.

Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes. Lonesome Rhodes is discovered by a young radio personality while staying in the drunk tank in a small town. His performance of “Free Man in the Morning” rocks the radio broadcast and he is pulled into the studio to become a regular on local radio. His “folksy” charm is evident from the beginning. He is loud, gruff, and a liar. But he cuts through the nonsense and gets to the heart of the town. This charm conveys him up the entertainment food chain until he is on television in New York City. He shills Vitajex, a nonsense pill that does absolutely nothing, and sets the tastes for seemingly the whole country. The whole time playing like he is just some simple country man who loves nothing more than to see his country thrive. This is a sham, of course. He is actually a bitter and manipulative man who strings along the person who discovered him until she is a wreck from all the back and forth. He resents his audience and believes that he could sell anything to them, because they are so simple. He spirals out of control until the woman who believed in him and made him who he was decides to leave the microphone on while he rants about how awful his audience is.

This film still holds the bite it once had so many years ago. This is because it isn’t just the story of Lonesome Rhodes, but the story of how television has made us believe anything if packaged just right. Towards the end of the movie, Lonesome Rhodes becomes involved with a man trying to win the presidential candidacy. When we first see the candidate, he bores us with this long and rambling speech. He is prim and polished but he looks just like every other man running for president. Lonesome Rhodes teaches him to mess up his hair, wear jeans, go hunting, and earn a nickname. He becomes a common man up for an uncommon position. In other words he appeals to the “folksy” audience Lonesome Rhodes also appeals to. Now take these ideas and apply them to almost any presidential candidate of the last thirty years. George Bush affected a Texan accent despite being born in Connecticut and spending most of his formative years in Massachusetts. Barack Obama was distilled down to the key words “Hope” and “Change” for most of his first presidential campaign. Elections are won by appealing to the lowest common denominator. The people who watch people screaming at each other over tax breaks for the wealthy on Fox News are the same people who are helping to elect one of the dumbest Congresses to date. (I mean my god they shut down government because they want to defund a program that they themselves help to create. It is just freaking lunacy.) Television isn’t the only thing dumbing down our country, but it sure doesn’t help.

Land of the Dead

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Last week I wrote some thoughts about Night of the Living Dead. Shot by Romero during the height of the sixties revolution, the film was rife with social commentary. Ever since Night of the Living Dead, Romero continued to write and direct zombie films. I chose to see and write about Land of the Dead, because I knew that it was the newest zombie film directed by him to not receive terrible reviews. While I was watching the film, I kept wondering why the master of zombie culture so unable to completely capture the energy everyone felt in Night.

Let me back up here and give you a few plot points. The world of this zombie apocalypse had been around for a while. Long enough for class structure to reemerge in the human world. The rich people live in a high-rise tower in the middle of town. Commercials advertising this structure show well off individuals living the leisurely high life. But we soon learn that not everyone is able to get into this structure. There is also a massive population that is left to fend for themselves on the streets. These people are usually recruited for the military who serve as the hunter gatherers in the sea of the zombie wilderness. All of this is funded by Dennis Hopper’s character, Kaufman. He lives on top of the high-rise in the lap of luxury. One of his flunkies, Cholo (played by John Leguizamo), gets upset when he is rejected for an apartment in the high-rise because he comes from the streets. He steals a massive military vehicle and threatens to blow up this high-rise. In the act of stealing this vehicle, which is called Dead Reckoning, he lets a couple thousand zombies in through their stronghold. Now these zombies are no longer the brainless type. These zombies have regained some of their brain power and are able to reason, learn and formulate rudimentary plans. The zombies ravage the city while our hero rescues Dead Reckoning from Cholo and tries to save the population. Will they be able to stop these reasoning zombies or will they too become chow food?…. Eh… You know what will happen if you have ever seen one of these movies before.

I watched this film immediately after seeing Night of the Living Dead. I think that act sort of ruined this film for me. Night of the Living Dead has so much energy, so many interesting shots and plot devices that Land of the Dead doesn’t even try to attempt. Instead Land of the Dead is bogged down in boring social commentary, the very thing that I praised Night for having in my post last week. By this point in the story of Romero’s life and work, most people are aware of his liberal ideas and his inability to be subtle when inserting them into his films. Dawn of the Dead is the most famous example of his obvious social commentary strategies. But, again, Dawn is leaps and bounds better than this film despite having the same thing. But Dawn was made relatively early in his career. I think that by the time he made this film, he seemed  tired. The zombie culture had gotten away from him and had evolved into something that I don’t think he can quite handle yet. Zombies can no longer be these slow mindless vessels. Instead they must have some sort of quirk to them. Thus Romero makes them able to learn and reason. While a very interesting idea, did he also have to throw in this every obvious rich vs. poor motif? The film is ultimately bogged down with too many ideas and not very interesting performances to back them up.

This entry so far shows that I thought this film was bad. It isn’t, really. The zombies are scary and gory which is always a plus. Some of the shots are interesting, including when the band of zombies come out of the ocean. Of course Dennis Hopper is always interesting to watch, if a little flat. It is a good movie to waste an afternoon on. But it is not a movie that will keep you thinking. And I guess that is my ultimate goal.

 

The Official Story

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Imagine you are a woman happily married. You love your husband, you have plenty of money, and you are fulfilled by your job. The only thing that is missing from your life is a child. Due to biological problems, you and your husband decide to adopt. So one day, your husband goes to the hospital and comes back with a beautiful baby girl. You take to her right away and don’t ask any questions about why you couldn’t come, who the parents were and why they decided to give her up for adoption. All of these questions melt away as you hold your baby. Five years pass and your child has grown up into a precocious young thing and she is still the light of your life. But questions start to pop into your head and you can’t make them go away… Would you find out the truth behind your daughter’s adoption or would you just accept your husband’s dismissals completely?

This is the problem that Alicia faces in The Official Story. Only I skipped over one important detail of the plot. This film was set in Argentina, just after a particularly brutal period in that country’s history. During this period the normal population of Argentina began to learn about the many misconduct and atrocities the dictatorship did to “subversives.” People were taken from their homes in the middle of the night, never to be seen again. Pregnant women were forced to give up their babies to couples who would never ask questions. Government sanctions entered into everyday life and big corporations. Total suppression and control were everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Alicia is representative of the wide population coming to terms with the atrocities the government committed. She is an every woman.

The woman who played Alicia was herself exiled from this regime. Norma Aleandro was deemed a subversive by the government and forced to flee her home country before the military could get their hands on her. This personal connection to the story informs her performance. A lot of Alicia goes through is internal emotions, practiced by so many years of holding things in. At first she is so naive that even her students that she teaches know more about her world than she does. But she needs to seek the truth, despite what her husband and nearly everyone else around her says. Through this journey, she is able to find the strength she needs to truly understand and change the world around her. After this film ends, I imagine Alicia joining the protests in downtown Buenos Aires. I imagine her speaking out and for the people who can no longer speak for themselves. At least that is what I hope happens.

Samurai I: Musashi Miyamoto

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Toshiro Mifune did not just portray old men and handsome painters. For a good portion of his career, he portrayed samurai. It is up for debate which samurai was his most iconic, Musashi Miyamoto is definitely in the running. This is not just because of his portrayal but also because the character was based on a real person whose work is still read today.

This movie is the first in a trilogy based on the life of Miyamoto. It essentially chronicles his origin into becoming one of the greatest known samurai in Japanese culture. We see Miyamoto when he is still called Takezo. He plots with his friend of escaping their home town and joining an army so they can fight and become samurai. They join up together only to be assigned the most menial of jobs, digging ditches. One day they hear the war is over, but they had yet to fight. The army disperses and Takezo finds himself carrying his wounded friend to a house in the middle of nowhere. In this house is a mother and daughter who are alone. While his friend recuperates, Takezo trains in sword play and tames a wild horse. But the mother and daughter are not just simple herb farmers. They actually take the valuables off of dead samurai and sell them. This gets them in trouble with the local gangsters. The gangsters threaten the mother and raid her house. Takezo fights them off only using a wooden sword. After the gangsters are gone, the mother offers herself to Takezo only to be rebuffed. Takezo flees and returns the next day to find out that his friend and the two women are gone. His friend was engaged to a young woman in their home town but it seems that is now over.

Takezo goes to the home town to tell his friend’s mother and fiance what happened. But on his entry into the town, he makes enemies of the townspeople. He fights his way through the town, only to be trapped by his friend’s mother. Through a series of events he is an outlaw who is captured by a monk. The monk offers to train Takezo into becoming a samurai and Takezo accepts reluctantly. I say reluctantly because he is in love with his friend’s fiance. Takezo takes the name Miyamoto and completes the training at the dojo. But he feels he is not ready yet and leaves to gain experience, promising the love of his life that he will one day return.

The look of this film is so completely different from the previous two films that I watched with Mifune in them. First off, this was not directed by Kurosawa, but instead by a contract director for Toho. So the film is given this epic quality that Kurosawa usually shies away from. It was also shot in color and made to look like an ancient Japanese print. And of course Mifune does little here but fight and be a stoic individual. I have to say that although I am intrigued to see the next two installments, this has to be the least favorite of the three films I have watched. I guess I prefer my Mifune non-samuraied up.

Scandal

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My last entry saw Toshiro Mifune as an old man suffering under the weight of paranoia. In this entry, we see a completely different side of his acting ability. In Scandal, he plays an earnest and handsome painter. If you were to put I Live in Fear and Scandal next to each other, you would not be able to tell that the lead characters were played by the same actor. I believe that Mifune would be very proud of this fact.

Ichiro Aoye decides one day to go up in the mountains of Japan and paint there. While painting, a woman stumbles upon him. She has missed a bus and now has to walk a far way to her lodging. Aoye offers to give her a ride to the hotel. We learn from the paparazzi in the lobby of the hotel that this woman is a famous opera singer, Miyako Saijo. The paparazzi take a picture of Aoye and Saijo on the balcony of her hotel room. This is slapped on the front page of an Amour magazine and a story is fabricated that they are lovers, even though they clearly are not. Aoye threatens to sue the paper. An old lawyer, down on his luck, stops by his studio and offers his services. This lawyer, played by Takashi Shimura, seems to believe in the cause, but it is easy to see that he will get a lot of press for the taking the case. After Aoye tries to visit him and finds his sick and lovely young daughter, he decides to take this old and naive lawyer on. They mount a case, but the slimy magazine owner gets his claws into the lawyer’s back. He bribes the lawyer and the case becomes an uphill battle in court that they are sure to lose. Aoye is aware of what is written on the wall, but he believes that the lawyer with a daughter so kind would turn around and do what is right again.

Just like every other Kurosawa movie, this film is more than its surface. It focuses not just on how a celebrity obsessed culture can turn even the most innocent of pictures into something scandalous, but also how that same culture can take a naive lawyer and turn him into a double crosser. Shimura seems to degrade himself in service of his character. He blubbers, rambles, gets drunk and begs for forgiveness from everyone but continues to do the bidding of the antagonist. Aoye’s faith seems to not only be misplaced but also to be sort of arcane in this world of surface. It is not until the very end do we realize that given the chance people will do the right thing.