The Wrecking Crew (2008)

Poster for The Wrecking Crew

Well, I just downloaded a bunch of old songs. That’s the effect that The Wrecking Crew had on me. This is a documentary about the LA studio musicians who recorded a lot of the famous hits of the early to mid-’60s, including iconic songs by the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas, Nancy Sinatra (and her father too!), the 5th Dimension, the Carpenters, the Monkees, Sonny and Cher, Tijuana Brass, and on and on. I was a little irritated by the opening movements of the film, which have a slightly overblown “and they invented sliced bread” quality to it, but once it settles into stories, mostly told by the musicians themselves, it’s hugely entertaining.

Probably the most interesting thing about it is the insight into the hit factory of the day, which had just moved to LA from NYC at the time these musicians found their niche. In a lot of ways this is also the story of the producers of the day, such as Phil Spector, and the packaging of the performers, most of whom weren’t able to play the music as well as the studio musicians. There’s some acknowledgement that a lot of the music created this way was crap, but there’s also a thread about how some of the most famous riffs in these songs were actually created by the Wrecking Crew rather than by the composers or producers. The one famous singer-songwriter who gets a tongue bath is Brian Wilson, whom everybody describes as a genius. Well, hey, I have always loved “Good Vibrations”.

It’s the kind of story that makes you wonder about some of the things they don’t get into. For example, the various Wrecking Crew musicians talk about how they were looked down upon by the older, NY-based studio musicians, and it makes you wonder about that older generation. The movie also concludes by saying that the Wrecking Crew basically lost their good-paying hit-making gig in the later part of the ’60s as more and more bands insisted on playing their own music, but didn’t this kind of hit factory approach continue despite the rise of real bands? Isn’t there still a strain of pop star who relies on studio musicians and perhaps even other songwriters to create their material? I dunno. This movie implies that it all changed in the late ’60s, but I’m dubious.

Another minor thing I was curious about is the way the film portrays Glen Campbell as the only member of the Wrecking Crew who made it as a star himself. One of the people interviewed is Leon Russell, and I seem to recall that he had a solo recording and performing career too. Maybe he never became a star, however. Still, it seems strange that his solo career is never mentioned, and it isn’t mentioned on the Wikipedia page about the Wrecking Crew either.

Anyway, it’s a really fun movie that provides a fascinating window on an era of pop music making. There are lots of surprising connections along the way (including an unexpected appearance by Frank Zappa) and lots of great music. Didn’t think I had it in me to feel nostalgic for the Captain and Tennille, that’s for sure.

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Satanic Polanski

Screencap from Rosemary's Baby

On Sunday, appropriately enough, I watched a religious double bill by Roman Polanski: Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Ninth Gate (1999). Both movies are about satanic cults, and my guess is that many have already written comparisons of the two. My big insight was that The Ninth Gate was the story of the husband in Rosemary’s Baby: the glib, ambitious asshole who is seduced into the cult.

So far I haven’t found any evidence that Polanski is familiar with the films of Val Lewton or Jacques Tourneur, but a lot of people see similarities between these two Polanski films and Lewton’s The Seventh Victim and Tourneur’s Night of the Demon. They even pair up interestingly in plot structure, with Rosemary and Seventh Victim featuring young women who discover Satanic cults in Manhattan, and Demon and Ninth Gate featuring cynical detective-types traveling to the Old World to investigate paranormal phenomena. Polanski shares Lewton’s preference for ambiguity about whether the paranormal is real or a product of mental illness or hallucination, although in The Ninth Gate the ambiguity is eventually left behind. That film in particular struck me this time through as having a stillness and mysterious fatalism at its core that I associate with Tourneur, and it has the pictorial beauty of a Tourneur film too. Polanski is more cynical than Tourneur, but there’s a dreamy, elliptical, poetic quality to The Ninth Gate, even with the standard genre materials, that makes him feel like a true heir. There’s a shot of Johnny Depp looking through an ornate cast iron gate that reminds me very much of a similar shot of Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past.

One thing that struck me again and again while watching Rosemary’s Baby, which I don’t think I’d seen before, was the way it uses Mia Farrow’s body almost like a special effect. Early on we see her skinny girl’s legs a lot, and while it may be partly a result of late’-60s miniskirt styles, I think it’s more that Polanski is emphasizing her innocence and vulnerability. He has said that when he first started working on the film he wanted a fleshier, more sensual actress in the role, specifically Tuesday Weld, but Paramount head Robert Evans insisted on the relatively unknown Farrow. Polanski proceeded to work with the materials at hand, and once Rosemary enters her troubled pregnancy we suddenly get a lot of shots of Farrow’s practically fleshless shoulders. In the context of the pain she is suffering and the shocking loss of weight her friend Hutch notices, those anorexic shoulders are terrifying. Before she was vulnerable, but now she is frail and fragile, seemingly eaten away by invisible forces. It’s hard to imagine this stick figure giving birth to a child, and the visual fragility feeds into the themes of the dangers of childbirth and a woman’s precarious position in the face of society’s demands that she be fruitful and multiply.

Screencap from The Ninth Gate

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Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter

Poster for Kumiko the Treasure Hunter

I remember seeing a news story at some point after the Coen Bros. Fargo came out about a Japanese woman who was searching for the money that Steve Buscemi buried in the snow in that movie who had been found frozen to death either in North Dakota or Minnesota. What I hadn’t heard in the meantime is that the explanation for what she was doing when she froze to death was wrong. Actually, I’ve never heard what she was doing or how the legend arose, but in any event this film treats the legend as if it were true. It tells us the story of Kumiko, who is a lost soul living in Tokyo who is obsessed with finding the treasure from the film Fargo.

Needless to say this is a pretty offbeat film; perhaps too offbeat for my tastes. I’ve tagged it as melodrama based on the definition I ran across somewhere that melodrama is about women trapped in a social role. Kumiko, who is 29, is shown to be constantly harassed by her mother and boss to find a husband and start a family, but Kumiko is really, really not interested. However, as much as she’s alienated by this social pressure, the film really doesn’t play like a traditional melodrama. It’s more like a fish-out-of-water comedy mixed with elements of psychological horror, although horror is too strong a word. The film’s perspective is too detached to really be horrific. We are watching Kumiko’s mental disintegration, but it’s so understated that it has very little emotional effect, at least on me.

Is it avant garde? The way that it mixes genres and tones feels very unconventional, and yet some of the humor is broad as a barn, especially the stuff about Minnesota Nice. It’s not an easy film to get your hands around. It’s playful, and yet also sort of monotone. It has moments of great visual beauty, but also a lot of fairly dismal offices and streets. The trailer was hypnotic and mysterious, but the film itself feels more numb and opaque, partly because Kumiko herself is so numb. It skirts uncomfortably close to being a comedy about somebody losing her mind.

Well, it’s a very strange thing. Did anyone else get a feeling of the 2001 stargate sequence in Kumiko’s nighttime wander through the snowy forest? Is Kumiko’s red hoodie supposed to make us thing of Little Red Riding Hood? I’d probably need to see it again to decide whether the movie works as a whole or not, but I don’t feel much urge to do so. It’s uncomfortably numb.

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Discovery of Nazimova’s old costumes

Well, this is pretty damn cool, especially for someone who share’s the writer’s love of Nazimova’s Salome (1923): “Announcing an exciting discovery of costumes and trunks once owned by Alla Nazimova.” Says Martin Turnbull: ‘In the Nazimova world, this is akin to finding another pair of Dorothy’s ruby slippers or Charles Foster Kane’s sled, Rosebud.’ Although it would’ve been nice if he’d mentioned that the headdress in question was most likely designed by Natacha Rambova (born Winifred Shaugnessy), who was an interesting character and a great artist in her own right.

Screencap from Salome

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Space Is the Place (1974)

Screencap from Space Is the Place

It’s part avant garde jazz concert, part low budget blaxploitation movie, part UFO cult propaganda video. (Outlaw Vern)

This is another one of those posts where I basically say, “Just go read this other guy’s review.” Outlaw Vern’s review covers most of the interesting angles that I could think of, and he was actually able to follow the plot much better than I was. The quote above is a pretty good compressed synopsis of what the film is up to. The other thing I would add is that the complete movie is currently available on YouTube, which is how I watched it. And it’s well worth watching! It is a crazy-unique film. I’ve never seen anything else like it.

Screencap from Space Is the Place

I can’t remember where I first heard of the film, but after reading Vern’s review I discovered that I already had it saved on Netflix in case they ever picked it up on DVD. (Which they still haven’t done.) When I posted about it on Facebook, a friend pointed me to YouTube, so to heck with Netflix. Sun Ra is someone I’ve been wanting to check out for a long time, but his music catalog is so vast that it’s been difficult to know where to start. Watching the film has actually gotten me started on the process of trying to figure that out. In reading about him on the internet I’ve learned more about his history and about the development of his fascination with science fiction, Egyptology, and the ideas of folks like Madame Blavatsky, as well as with the different phases of his musical career.

I’ve written elsewhere about the connection between science fiction and Madame Blavatsky, and Sun Ra fits right into that universe. One of the things that caught my eye in the credits of Space Is the Place is a thank you to the Rosicrucians, and apparently there’s a scene in the movie that was shot at a Rosicrucian temple in the Bay Area. (The film was basically a production of a Bay Area PBS station.) The melange of pseudo-scientific ideas espoused in Space Is the Place really are more religious than scientific. They have a crank or crackpot quality to them, but leavened with a good sense of humor and theatricality.

Screencap from Space Is the Place

The blacksploitation element of the film is just as weird as the sci fi religious aspect. There’s some casual female nudity (and one bare male ass) that feels strangely out of place, but it’s also part of a larger theme of black degradation that Sun Ra, in the story, is attempting to alleviate. The women are used as sex objects, and the film exploits their nudity and sexuality, but we also see them beaten bloody by two white men (after the women snicker at their inability to get it up) and treated with contempt by the satanic black figure who is trying to defeat Sun Ra in a kind of wager or game for the souls of black people. Two of the women are accepted by Sun Ra for migration to the planet where select black people will be liberated from their earthly chains, but of course the white woman doesn’t make the cut. The politics of all this is very knotty and unusual.

This is an extremely low budget film, and it feels amateurish because of that and because of its unorthodox/crackpot ideas. That is, it’s amateurish in the sense of a labor of love, not of commerce. The unorthodoxy is expressing a singular vision that gives the movie real power. It has deep roots in dreamland, and it lets you know it. “Your ignorance will be your salvation!”

Screencap from Space Is the Place

[Screencaps from Barger’s Jazz Boutique.]

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Chappie (2015)

Poster for Chappie

The generally negative reviews I’ve seen of Chappie pretty much talked me out of any desire to see it, but then a couple of friends gave it the thumbs up, so I decided to give it a try after all. I can’t say I thought it was a particularly good movie, but it was fun. There’s a playfulness to it that I liked, and it seems to be largely the result of casting the South African musicians Ninja and Yo-Landa Visser in key roles. Their acting and characters are somewhat limited, but their anarchic sensibility gives the film a slightly off-kilter, almost improvisitory feeling that I liked. Unfortunately, the story it has to tell of a police robot that’s loaded with an experimental artificial intelligence program is a not particularly interesting variation on the Pinocchio story.

I’m not sure exactly where this went awry, but one problem is that none of the characters is very vivid. Hugh Jackman is cast interestingly against type as a weasely villain, but then he isn’t given much bite, and Sigourney Weaver is completely wasted as the CEO of the robotics corporation that builds the police robots. Dev Patel is also a rather ineffectual character, and maybe that’s really the problem with all the characters. They are all ineffectual, and it seems like the plot consists of people running around trying to do things and failing, often stupidly. Well, maybe that’s a commentary on the human condition.

Along with the countercultural appeal of the two musicians, who play gangsters, the other thing that works in Chappie is the humor. It was surprisingly funny, and I suppose the flailing nature of much of the action does feed into that. It also has some striking visual artistry and some nice music by Hans Zimmer.

I didn’t find what it had to say about intelligence and morality very interesting, but there was enough good stuff that I enjoyed the movie over all. I certainly didn’t expect what happens in the end. It’s a little offbeat, which is a good thing, although it probably didn’t help it at the box office. There’s definitely room for a sequel that will probably never be made. According to Rotten Tomatoes the audience like this a lot more than the critics did. Not sure why the critics were so hard on it.

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Vertigo (1958)

Poster for Vertigo

I first saw Vertigo in 1984 when it was re-released after a long period in distribution limbo. The audience I saw it with at the Neptune in Seattle laughed the whole way through, no doubt to the mortification of the cinephiles in the theater who had come seeking a long lost holy grail. I think the laughter resulted from the weirdness of the film, and the fact that we didn’t know what to make of it. I, for one, had a very difficult time with Jimmy Stewart as a sweaty pervert, and that was still the case when I watched it again (was it really only the second time?) on DVD in 2008. However, by then I’d read enough about it, and seen enough movies that had been influenced by it, that I understood a bit better why it was considered a classic, and indeed why it would be ranked as the the greatest movie of all, displacing long time champion Citizen Kane, in the most recent Sight and Sound Poll. So when the chance came to see it on the big screen again in a new 4K digital restoration playing at SIFF Uptown, I took the opportunity.

Apparently this was only the third time I’ve watched it, although I would have sworn I’d seen it at least four or five times. That’s probably because I’ve read so much about it! One thing I came away feeling this time is that my problem may not be with Jimmy Stewart per se but with the fact that Scotty becomes such a creep. It’s a very creepy movie. Scotty has his reasons. He’s taken a lot of emotional and psychological damage by the final act, but be that as it may, he becomes an ugly, obsessed brute. The only thing that makes his abusive behavior even mildly sympathetic is the obvious desperation and pain behind his attempts to remake Judy into Madeline. Yet for all that Judy herself is a pathetic, weak creature who passively allows the men around her to force her to their wills, it’s very hard not to feel that she’s more deserving of our sympathy than Scotty. The two main male characters, Scotty and Gavin Elster, are both finally monsters.

It’s easy to see why cinephiles and film critics are so enamored with this movie, because it’s all about the cinema and the way we fall in love with cinematic illusion. It is, as everyone says, dreamlike in its repetition and sense of irrational compulsion. It’s about that great artistic theme of amour fou. Yet Hitchock is  a strange vehicle for some of the deeper reaches of this material. Well, in one way he’s perfect, because his love of obvious rear projection gives his films an artificiality that matches up very well with the dreamlike quality of the film. However, there’s something so conventional about some of his shtick — like the swelling waves and music when Scotty and Madeline finally clinch — that it really feels cheap at times. The transgressiveness of Scotty’s obsession is impressive in a big budget Hollywood film, but Hitchcock’s sexual transgressiveness reminds me of Robert Heinlein’s. It feels deeply creepy and abusive on some level, probably because it treats women as mere instruments of desire. There’s a grubby, panty-sniffing quality to it. Compare and contrast, say, Josef von Sternberg, who centers his stories of sexual humiliation on the women, and allows them an agency that Hitchcock seems incapable of.

All that said, I seem to be slowly warming up to Vertigo. It’s wonderfully weird, and it has an oceanic sense of transformation, even though the transformation is ultimately monstrous. It was only this time that I could hear how much Bernard Herrmann was channeling Debussy, particularly La Mer, in his famous soundtrack. It fits that sense of transformation perfectly. Also, San Francisco has never looked more beautiful and mysterious than in this film. Some of the compositions are utterly astounding, as in the downward shot of the mission church that shows tiny figures on one side of the bell tower discovering Madeline’s shattered body while on the other Scotty slinks out of a side door to disappear into the night. I was struck by how dark the movie looks — enough so that I wondered at times whether it was a problem with the restoration. There’s a scene in a bookstore where I thought the image was literally fading away as though the film elements had lost their pigment, until I realized that what we were seeing was the fading of the daylight as the sun set — a gathering gloom as the bookstore owner talks of the madness and suicide of Carlotta Valdes. Really an incredible, and incredibly poetic moment.

So I’ve once again mostly focused on my problems with Vertigo, but it’s probably in a losing cause. I’m not sure how much longer I can withhold my approval, despite the barbarous mistreatment of Judy. There’s a facile quality to Hitchcock that I find off-putting, but there’s no doubt he tapped into some deep waters. If it feels grubby at times, it could just be the naked truth of the matter.

Screencap from Vertigo

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Four More Years!

Today is the fourth anniversary of this blog, so it’s time for another State of the Blog post. (I didn’t do one last year.)

The Dreamland Cafe has evolved, to my eyes. When I started out I saw it as a place to primarily write about old movies. (Remember when I used to write about silent movies?) Over time, and especially lately, it’s become a place where I write about almost nothing but new movies. There are reasons for this, and probably the biggest is that due to some changes in my life I’m not watching many old movies right now. But another factor is that with new movies I just throw down some quick thoughts without putting a lot of work into it, but for old movies I’ve typically wanted to watch them at least a couple of times first and also take screencaps and select the best ones to publish with whatever I write. This is time-consuming, and so I do it much less often. Also, the main reason that I started writing about every new movie I saw was that I felt a blog needs a constant stream of new material, and that was the easiest way to provide it — assuming, as I did, that I wanted to write more carefully about old films.

It bothers me that I’ve been only writing about new movies lately, because it seems to me that there’s plenty of writing about new movies on the internet. Although, that said, everybody sees different movies, and to the extent that I end up writing about more rarely seen new movies, that’s probably just as valuable as writing about rarely-seen-these-days old movies. Still, I’m going to try to give myself permission right here and right now to write about old movies in an off-the-cuff, slapdash fashion, just as I do with new movies. I also hope to write more thoughtful pieces about both older and newer movies as time and ideas permit. Some of those more considered pieces have been the most popular ones on this blog over time. Then again, writing about slave sex or posting screencaps of a naked Olga Kurylenko seems to be the most popular thing you can do.

I had yet another wrestling match a few months ago with the feeling that the Dreamland Cafe is a waste of my time, because it seemed to me that I really don’t have anything interesting to say on the topic of film, at least compared to the best writers on film. It’s quite possible that the blog is preventing me from exploring other avenues of writing that would be more valuable to both myself and others. Once again, however, I’ve come around to the fact that I enjoy writing about the movies I see. Wrestling with the possibility that what you’re writing is a waste of time is just part of the life of a writer. So it goes, and so onward. Thanks, as always, for reading.

Photo of the Blogger Himself

The Blogger Himself (Photo by Johan Anglemark)

 

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What We Do in the Shadows (2014)

Poster for What We Do in the Shadows

This is a mockumentary about vampires that was made in New Zealand. The basic set-up is four vampires sharing a flat in Wellington. An unnamed crew is filming a documentary about them in the lead-up to the annual monster’s ball for the local vampires, zombies, and witches — but not werewolves, who are looked down on by the others. Through the eyes of the documentary cameras we’re shown the squabbles of the flatmates over chores, their mischievous efforts to find prey, their swearing matches with werewolves (‘not swearwolves!’), their favorite nightlife haunts in Wellington, their mentoring of younger vampires, and the history of their own conversion to vampirism and their lives in the centuries since. (The youngest of them is almost 200.)

It’s very simple, but it’s also very clever and very funny. There is an actual horror element to it, with people getting killed in gruesome ways, but the horror is always played for laughs. It’s slapstick horror. The day-to-day petty grind of life as a vampire turns out to be a rich, um, vein of comedy. It’s also very clever in the way it riffs on the standard vampire lore and classics of vampire cinema, such as the 8,000 year old roommate, Peter, who is modeled on Count Orlok from Murnau’s Nosferatu and who comes to a similar end.

In some ways it feels like an extended television sitcom, and my friend Luke tells me these guys made a television series called Flight of the Conchords, about a New Zealand band that relocates to New York City. It’s very episodic and gag-based, but it does have a few threads that run through it, two of which result in a delightful happy ending. It’s a feel good vampire movie, and who knew that was even possible? Well, I suppose The Only Lovers Left Alive was a feel good movie in its own way, but it was a pretty smug one. What We Do in the Shadows is entirely more goofy, and you’ll never think of sandwiches the same way again.

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The Salvation (2014)

Poster for The Salvation

This Western by the Danish director Kristian Levring has its roots in spaghetti westerns and even seems to directly reference Django with its dramatic use of a coffin. The European perspective on the American frontier story is almost always darker, more brutal, and less heroic than the homegrown version. On the surface this is a fairly straightforward revenge story about a man whose family is wiped out and who takes revenge and thus becomes entangled in a cycle of violence. Below the surface it’s a story of human venality and corruption that’s driven by the survival instinct and capitalism.

Mads Mikkelsen plays Jon, who is introduced (along with his brother), as a former Danish soldier who immigrated to America after Denmark was defeated in a war with Germany in 1864. This is a war I’d never even heard of, but it informs the tragic story that follows, which is set seven years later in 1871. Jon and his brother Peter are trying to flee the nightmare of history by pursuing the American dream, but history is impossible to escape. The story might have been a little sharper, in fact, if the villains they tangle with in America had been German immigrants, but Levring instead gives us Delarue — a veteran of the US wars against the Indians whose military experience has turned him into a sadistic killer. Delarue and Jon become embroiled in a cycle of vengeance, but Delarue has the advantage of being the local power. What’s slightly unusual is that unlike the typical American Western where the local power is someone like a cattle rancher who acts outside the law, in The Salvation Delarue turns out to be the pawn of a corporation that wants to acquire the local land for the oil and wants to do it, much to Delarue’s disgust, in strictly legal ways.

The story is a bit like a fable. The townspeople are craven, and some of them are in cahoots with Delarue. There’s a beautiful woman called the Princess (Eva Green) who had her tongue cut out by Indians when she was young and who has been brutalized by the men in her life ever since. One subtle touch is that Levring has people of color in the township, although none of them is a major character. Many of the townspeople are immigrants, and we hear Danish and Italian spoken in the course of the film. For all that we hear of the Indians, we don’t see any of them. The frontier life is nasty and constrained, and the people living it are weak, vulnerable, and willing to do anything to survive.

The film is beautifully shot, with muted colors and a very grainy, painterly look. Delarue and his gang live in a burnt out town that’s never explained but is utterly striking visually and as a metaphor for human ruination of the world. Jon loses everything and must face Delarue’s gang with only a couple of unlikely sidekicks. Perhaps this leads to an unlikely resolution of the revenge cycle, but that’s mitigated by the endcrawl coda revealing who has really won the West. The revenge cycle is completely irrelevant to the powers that be. Is salvation irrelevant too?

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