Barbarians have sacked the Temple!

The Cinema Temple has been pillaged!  Looters make away with the ancient treasures and destroy countless centuries of lore!  The City of Cinema burns and it’s subjects weep!  Only desolation remains!

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Joe Dante’s Gremlins

Today I watched Joe Dante’s Gremlins (1984)

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I suppose this holiday’s theme is the blending of holiday cheer with gruesome genre film making.  In the case of Gremlins, Joe Dante offers us a unique twist on the monster movie and draws humour out of the festive juxtaposition.  The story follows Billy Peltzer, a young man who lives in a small town with his parents and works in the local bank.  His father, a struggling inventor, has bought him a new pet for Christmas, a strange little creature named Mogwai.  Mogwai comes with an important set of three rules though; you can’t get him wet, and you can’t feed it after midnight.  So of course these rules soon get broken; first it gets wet and suddenly reproduces by budding, then it’s decidedly evil offspring manage to get Billy to feed them after midnight, and suddenly they have transformed into villainous little monsters.

In typical Joe Dante fashion, this film offers a very off kilter sense of humour that revolves around a self awareness of the genre conventions at play.  Again, it is a juxtaposition joke mainly; the first half dripping in Spielbergian sentimentality and quirky cheer, only to be followed by a barrage of grotesque and creative slapstick.  Dante definitely has an eye for this form of genre blending as his irreverent sense of humour provides a strong connective tissue to keep the film consistent.

From a thematic point of view though, the film is the archetype of Hollywood pro-consumer anti-consumerism.  There is a running undercurrent of anti-materialist thought in the film, only for that to be packaged with some of the most marketable monster in film history.  This combined with a certain flippancy in the attitude combine to make the film feel somewhat trivial, despite the nostalgic praise heaped upon it.  What I am saying is that while this is certainly a fun Christmas movie, it lacks a certain heartfelt warmth common in it’s kin, it certainly is no Die Hard.  4/5

Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas

Today I watched Henry Selick’s The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

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Somewhere in the realms of fantasy there are towns dedicated to all the Holidays and this story focuses on the one christened Halloween Town.  In Halloween Town, Jack Skellington is the pumpkin king, which more a cultural title as he helps organize the ultimate scares for their holiest of seasons.  But Jack feels a deep discontent lately as the most recent Halloween ends with him suffering an ennui that leads him to wander far out of town.  In the grand forest that surrounds Halloween Town he finds a strange copse of trees which each bear a door in the shape of a holiday symbol.  Jack falls into Christmas Town and suddenly experiences a joy he has never known.  Now he is driven to bring this joy back to his hometown, but the consequences will prove disastrous.

While this film is usually attributed to it’s producer Tim Burton, I think that undersells the director, Selick’s, contributions to the film.  While it is certainly Burton material, there is a certain movement and flow to the work that is unlike anything else Burton has worked on, and I attribute this to the director’s focus on briskness and speed.  Everything comes very quickly in this movie, there is a certain speed here that is quite uncharacteristic of the musical it is. Yet despite this there is an attention to detain that brings out both the macabre and the jolly.

That unconventional blend of the joyous and the grotesque really is this film’s appeal and the focus of it’s deep wit.  The film exists at the crossroads where Dr. Seuss-esque whimsy and harrowing German expressionism meet and it happens to be a rather uproarious place.  A shame then that the actual music of this musical is quite repetitive, it is very Danny Elfman all the time and he seems to lack some much needed diversity in his songwriting here.  That being said, it is hardly bad music, and does fit the aesthetic.  Said aesthetic is really the reason this film has remained in popular consciousness anyways, and is wholly worth the watch.  4/5

Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan

Today I watched Whit Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990)

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Set in New York during the Christmas holidays, Metropolitan follows a group of young college students from upper class backgrounds attending numerous debutante balls and the associated after parties.  The primary character of the bunch is Tom Townsend, who is more middle class than the colleagues whom he finds himself with in the film.  Really he stumbles into their community almost by accident, though soon finds himself quite embedded and dealing with the vagueries of coming of age.

This film is a request from a friend and obviously quite outside of my normal wheelhouse, which may explain why I had difficulty having any sort of reaction to the characters and events.  Then again maybe it is the distinct lack of emotion they show, which is perhaps intrinsic to it’s comedy of manners.  But then I didn’t see much point made of this standoffish and inexpressive manner, the film seemed to simply present it as a thing that is and of no further consequence.

I have rarely met people this stone faced, and certainly never entire groups of them, so the film was like an alien artifact to me.  Their upper class lives were likewise alien and distant from anything I could really relate it too, it was a strange experience to see people so devoid of what I have come to recognize as humanity.  I wondered if that was the point for a while, but the jaunty score seemed to be cuing me for some other, more empathetic response.  Frankly, I would avoid this film and I hope it’s presentation of it’s subjects is skewed as I cannot wrap my head around such stoicism actually existing.  2/5

Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales

Today I watched Matteo Garrone’s Tale of Tales (2015)

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As this film is based on a collection of 17th century fables and fairy tales, it takes the form of an anthology of three separate stories.  The first story begins with a King and Queen unable to conceive a child, until they are visited by a strange magical figure.  This stranger tells them that if the King goes out and kills a sea monster, and if the sea monster’s heart is prepared for the Queen by a virgin, she will conceive after eating it.  While the King dies in the effort, the heart is secured and the Queen does become pregnant, but so too does the virgin servant who prepared the meal.  When they both give birth, their sons are identical and seem to share a strong bond, much to the Queen’s dismay.

The second tale concerns a King who becomes obsessed with a pet flea which grows to enormous proportions.  When this flea dies he skins it and holds a contest, whomever can identify the hide of that strange beast will win his daughter’s hand in marriage.  Turns out the only one to know what a giant flea hide looks like is an ogre, so that doesn’t go well.  Finally the third story sees another King, this one a womanizing misanthrope, attempting to woo a woman whom he only hears.  Her angelic singing touches the King’s heart, but he is a cruel man and will not understand that the woman he heard was in fact very old.

As an anthology of traditional European fairy tales, this film is presented with wonderful ingenuity and imagination.  The inter-cutting between them is sharp and very well paced, always revealing something new and strange as the stories unfold together.  But does the film really deliver on it’s name?  Do the disparate elements actually come together to make a cohesive whole?  On this matter I am a bit torn, on the one hand they are united aesthetically and by mood, but thematically they seem to diverge significantly from one another.  There is however, a through line with every King and Queen in this movie being totally crazy in one way or another, but I did not feel as though the film really focused on this nascent theme of corruption and power.

That being said, by the time the credits stated rolling i did not feel dissatisfied with this lack of connectivity.  Truly the artistry here is enough to keep this work moving along.  There is a magic in traditional European fantasy that is often lost in modern high fantasy, a combination of wonderful and disturbing ideas wrapped into a single idea.  There is so much creativity in modern worlds of elves, dwarves, and orcs, give me the giant fleas pleas.  5/5

Buichi Saito’s Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril

Today I watched Buichi Saito’s Lone Wolf and Cub: Baby Cart in Peril (1972)

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In this entry into the Lone Wolf and Cub series, Itto Ogami is hired to kill a woman who abandoned the personal guard of the Daimyo of the Owari province.  This woman, O-Yuki, is a master of the short sword and was originally hired from among the itinerant performers who form their own society in this period.  As Ogami hunts her though, he learns from other performers that her story is truly a tragedy, as she deserted after one of the lord’s retainers had assaulted and raped her.  Now we finally see Ogami struggle with morals, and his grim stoicism begins to crack under the pressure of walking the path of hell.

So far in the series, Ogami’s son Daigoro has been the conscience of the pair, but here we finally see some empathy and emotion from the elder.  One could say that this is the actor growing more confortable with the role, but it certainly does fit into an arc for the series.  Ogami begins the series as a stone faced badass, an unbreakable killing machine devoid of emotion, now we see him changed, worn down by the path he walks.  Conversely Daigoro now takes on elements of his father’s stoicism and inhuman murderousness, bearing the Death Life Eyes as one opponent points out.

There is just a bit more humanity and empathy in this entry, a much needed change of pace from the infamous mass slaughter that it is known for.  Granted there is still plenty of bloody action to satisfy, this is still a Lone Wolf and Cub film with all that that entails.  This film also establishes something of a true nemesis for Ogami, moreso than the distant overlord of his enemy Yagyu family anyways, though with only two films left, we will see if that goes anywhere.  Anyways, The Lone Wolf and Cub series is totally excellent, but if you want an entry with a bit more empathy, this is the one.  5/5

Nic Mathieu’s Spectral

Today I watched Nic Mathieu’s Spectral (2016)

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Dr. Mark Clyne is a DARPA researcher and developer who had previously invented a new, high spectrum night vision system for the American military.  This system is being used as the army is deployed in a Moldovan civil war, but soon soldiers are reporting strange, spectral anomalies.  While it may at first have seemed like a technical glitch, soon one of these specters touches, and kills a Delta Force soldier.  Now Clyne is called into the warzone to run analysis on this problem, unfortunately the specters are becoming more and more prevalent in the area and no one has a way to stop them.

There is something decidedly old school about having a sci-fi movie that actually has a scientist protagonist.  There was a time when such heroes, people who could puzzle out problems and solve them with their minds, were all the rage in sci-fi, but that could not be further from the case today.  Perhaps because of the class warfare perpetuated by our governments, we the common folk are no longer educated enough to identify with these intellectual characters.  It’s a damn shame because, as this film shows, these characters can be really awesome when presented well.

And boy does this film have good presentation.  First off the acting is quite top notch, especially from the lead James Badge Dale.  He has to bring the humanity out of a guy whose mind is always on the operation at hand, a mechanically driven and logically minded person, and I think he succeeds with flying colours.  From there the film also has a very solid look to it, there is definitely some showing off here from the first time director, and good for him, give me the style thank you.  So definitly check this one out, this masterful blend of military sci-fi and suspense has not been this good since Aliens.  5/5