#91 - How High The Moon
1915 - 2009
Greetings and salutations, movie buffs. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover in this week’s Electric Theatre, so how about we just dive right in?
NOW IN THEATRES
Over the past decade or so, summer movies have been transformed from events into comfort food. As their budgets have become increasingly bloated, studios are loath to gamble on anything that isn’t tried and true. They want to remind you of something familiar, preferably something you loved in childhood like Indiana Jones, Transformers or superhero comics. The closest thing to a risk is entrusting a director with a franchise and backing off, which is what they should be doing in the first place. Summer movies are the Sunday dinners of cinema: too much food, too many empty calories and after you’re done, you need a nap.
So how refreshing is it to see something like District 9, a remarkably ambitious science fiction movie not based on a comic, TV series or video game but from an original screenplay with no recognizable stars? Back in the 70s or 80s, we’d have taken it for granted but today, it’s cause for celebration. Directed by Neill Blomkamp and written by Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell, District 9 is exciting, thoughtful, intelligent and one of the few movies I’ve seen this year that I look forward to revisiting.
There has already been a lot written about this movie, so I’m not going to bother telling you what it’s about. Besides, there are too few surprises left at the movies anymore so the less you know going in, the better. While the movie starts off in a kind of mockumentary style not unlike Cloverfield, Blomkamp doesn’t stay beholden to that conceit for long. He returns to it from time to time but he’s trying to tell a story here, not orchestrate an elaborate hoax. When the cinema vérité style gets in the way of the story, he’s more than ready to abandon it. The cast of unknowns is top-notch, especially Sharlto Copley as the unlikely protagonist. All the effects work courtesy of Peter Jackson’s team at Weta Workshop and Weta Digital is stunning. Not only do I not know how they achieved much of it, more importantly, I didn’t care. The filmmakers are doing their job, sweeping you up in the story so you don’t even think about the technical side of the effects. And I truly appreciate that Blomkamp films his action sequences so you can actually tell what’s happening in them, a skill that seems to be in short supply these days.
District 9 isn’t quite a great movie. While it is distinctly its own unique vision, I was repeatedly reminded of other, earlier films. This is kind of like Alien Nation, this bit is reminiscent of Starship Troopers, this reminds me of The Fly, etc. This isn’t a slam against the movie. District 9 clearly stakes out its own ground and, in the end, holds its own against any of those other films. Neill Blomkamp has made a remarkably good first impression and I look forward to seeing what he does next. Ideally, the success of District 9 would encourage studios to gamble on other original ideas. More likely, however, it just means that Blomkamp will be put in charge of making meatloaf for another big-budget Sunday dinner. Something tells me it’ll be a delicious meatloaf. (* * * ½)
Few living filmmakers are as revered as Hayao Miyazaki and with good reason. Even as animation has become increasingly dominated by computers, Miyazaki has painstakingly crafted some of the most beautiful hand-drawn animated films ever made, including Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle. He’s a storyteller, an artist and an inspiration to filmmakers around the world. His latest film, Ponyo, is aimed at younger audiences but don’t let that dissuade you. Like all of Miyazaki’s films, it’s filled with images guaranteed to take your breath away.
The story is a simple variation on the classic fairytale The Little Mermaid. Ponyo is a goldfish who meets a young boy named Sosuke on an unauthorized trip to the surface. The two form a bond and Ponyo yearns to become human permanently so that she can spend her life with the boy. That’s basically all there is to the tale but Miyazaki filters it through thousands of years’ worth of Japanese tradition. Once again, Disney has done an excellent job adapting the dialogue for English-speaking audiences, getting heavyweights like Liam Neeson, Cate Blanchett, Tina Fey and Matt Damon to provide the voices. They even managed to incorporate a Hannah Montana/Jonas Brothers connection, casting Noah Cyrus as Ponyo and Frankie Jonas as Sosuke. They’re both quite good, too, although I could have comfortably done without their remix of the title song during the end credits.
But make no mistake, Ponyo is a distinctly Eastern-flavored movie. Miyazaki’s images draw frequently upon traditional Japanese folk art and his story has a serene placidity you don’t often find in American movies. There isn’t a lot of conflict and what there is gets resolved quietly. If I had young children, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring them to this movie. But it will be most appreciated by the very young and by older animation buffs who will revel in Miyazaki’s sumptuous drawings.
If your only exposure to Miyazaki so far has been the darker fantasy worlds of Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke, Ponyo may not be the movie you’re looking for. It’s a kids’ movie and unless you have children or are willing to engage with it on that level, this might not be your cup of tea. But children who are introduced to movies like My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo will be in for a treat, with even more amazing worlds to explore waiting for them as they get older. (* * *)
TALES FROM THE QUEUE
Scream Of Fear
Hammer Films. The name conjures up images of lurid Technicolor blood, fog-enshrouded moors and re-imagined versions of monsters like Dracula, Frankenstein and the Mummy from a time when “re-imagining” wasn’t considered a dirty word. Their 1961 chiller Scream Of Fear, however, boasts none of those things. It’s a black-and-white psychological thriller rather than an occult horror picture. But it’s still good fun and filled with Hammer’s signature tone.
Susan Strasberg stars as Penny, bound to a wheelchair after a horse-riding accident years earlier and returning to live with her father and stepmother for the first time in a decade. Ann Todd plays the stepmother who regrets to inform Penny that her dad was suddenly called away on business. Penny finds that a little hard to swallow, especially after she begins to see dad’s corpse propped up in various places around the house. Naturally, it’s always gone by the time she can get anyone else to take a look. Is Penny crazy? Or is she right and being driven mad by her greedy stepmother and her father’s suspiciously sinister doctor (Christopher Lee)? She enlists the aid of the family chauffeur (Ronald Lewis) to get to the bottom of things.
Scream Of Fear was written by Hammer vet Jimmy Sangster and directed by Seth Holt. I have a feeling both men were heavily influenced by Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 classic Diabolique. Sangster’s script plays its hand reasonably well, although it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I’ve seen blocks of Swiss cheese with fewer holes. But Holt’s direction sells the story with creepy, dimly-lit photography. Strasberg is frequently more obnoxious than sympathetic but Lewis is solidly cast as Bob, the chauffeur and it’s always a pleasure to see Christopher Lee, here affecting a bit of a French accent. Despite its flaws, Scream Of Fear is consistently enjoyable and definitely worth a look. (* * *)
Sony released Scream Of Fear last year as part of their Icons Of Horror: Hammer Films package. The DVD pairs it with 1964’s The Gorgon and while nobody specifically recommended it to me, I’m never one to pass up a free movie.
The Gorgon finds Peter Cushing as Dr. Namaroff, spearheading a cover-up in a small European village that has seen seven mysterious murders in the past five years. Curiously, each of the victims had been turned to stone. Richard Pasco plays Paul Heitz, the son of the most recent victim. He believes his father’s claim that the village is haunted by a gorgon, one of the snake-headed sister spirits to Medusa. Together with the one-and-only Christopher Lee, he determines to destroy the gorgon forever.
Terence Fisher, who directed some of Hammer’s best-loved films, helms The Gorgon and the movie looks great, as you might expect. Cushing and Lee are their usual terrific selves and it’s fun to see Cushing as the more sinister character for a change. But unfortunately, the whole thing is kind of silly. The story is far too repetitious to generate much suspense and as for the titular monster herself…well, let’s just say this is no Clash Of The Titans. Hardcore Hammer fans will want to check this out no matter what but there are many, many other Lee/Cushing face-offs for casual fans to enjoy before you end up here. (* *)
Thanks to Christopher Seay for this week’s Tales From The Queue recommendation! As always, if you have an underrated favorite, old or new, don’t be shy. Send it my way! The doctor is always on call.