Newbie Wednesday – How To Train Your Dragon

How To Train Your Dragon (2010, dir. Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders)
Starring Jay Baruchel, America Ferrara, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, T.J. Miller, Kristen Wiig

In 1981 we got Dragonslayer, which was a step up in the medieval film genre in terms of effects. In 1996 Dragonheart was released, and while its hard to dislike a film with both David Thewlis and Sean Connery, the picture never stuck with me as a re-watchable one. In 2002, the movie was Reign of Fire…and well, lets try to forget that one. The latest dragon-centric film is Pixar Animation’s How To Train Your Dragon, from the writer/director team behind Lilo and Stitch and Mulan. And how does this flick stack up against its fire-breathing brethren?

Hiccup (Baruchel) is the son of a gruff Viking king (Butler) whose village is regularly attacked by a variety of diverse dragons. During one of these attacks, Hiccup witnesses an elusive go down in the forest outside of his village and ventures into the wilderness to find it. The two are confrontational at first, but grow on each other. Simultaneously, Hiccup is being pressured by his father into being a dragonslayer. What is he to do as he begins to understand this creatures better than anyone in his village?

What this movie does best is put you on the back of a dragon. The flying scenes are far and away the best aspect of the picture, many times done from the POV of Hiccup. There’s also an interesting variety of dragons presented in the film, each with quirk that makes them unique and different. The look of the flick is thanks to cinematographer Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men”, and pretty much every other Cohen Brothers film ever). I also liked that the film focused on thinking your way through a problem over just rushing into battle. Hiccup’s tendencies to go to books and conduct scientific study pay off and save his father and the entire village.

I liked that the film shied away from previous Dreamworks ventures, which seem to rely so heavily on modern pop culture references. It felt more like a Pixar film in establishing its own universe. However, every character except for Hiccup feels underdeveloped. It would have been nice to get some backstory on the village and how their conflict with the dragons developed. Despite these hiccups (pun intended) in the story, its still one of the better and more intelligent films marketed towards kids.

Wild Card Tuesday – Eve’s Bayou

Eve’s Bayou (1997, dir. Kasi Lemmons)
Jurnee Smollet, Samuel L. Jackson, Meagan Good, Lynn Whitfield, Debii Morgan, Diahann Carroll, Vondie-Curtis Hall, Branford Marsalis

The thesis statement of Eve’s Bayou is declared early on in the main character’s voice over as an adult, recalling the events that transpired in her 10th year. “Memory is a selection of images, some elusive, others printed indelibly on the brain”. This is a story told through the filter of years gone by and originally seen through the eyes of a child. Adult Eve tells us that when she was 10 she killed her father and the film gives us a couple explanations for this, emphasizing the distortion that occurs as a result of experiencing time passing.

The story begins with young Eve (Smollett), a resident of a Creole parish in Louisiana who lives comfortably on the estate of her doctor father (Jackson). It’s the early 1960s and the patriarch of the family is caught by Eve having sex with one of his patients in the carriage house during a party in the home. He negotiates with the little girl afterwards, trying to convince her she didn’t see what she thought and making promises of lavishing her with more attention than her older sister, Cicely (Good). More and more people in their small town become aware of what is going on within Eve’s family and it becomes apparent that things will end on a dark note.

Eve’s Bayou is full of classic Southern Gothic atmosphere, yet evoked a lot of European slow paced family dramas. Think William Faulkner meets Ingmar Bergman. The film is stylistic rich and uses the Creole religious practices as a framework for foreshadowing and mixing the dreamed up with the real. When Eve is told stories by her family we see them acted out around her, the characters appearing suddenly in mirrors and Eve standing in the middle of them. The film can can delve into the overly melodramatic at times, but because of the setting and general tone it doesn’t seem too out of place.

Eve’s Bayou isn’t a perfect film, but for a first time venture into directing it is incredibly impressive. Director Simmons uses many African-American female crew member (including an amazing cinematographer) and focuses her story around the women of the family. What is so fascinating to me is the otherworldly nature of the place and time Simmons is capturing. The Creole culture has always occupied a different place in the racial history of our nation, and it is interesting to see a pocket of America where the economy and culture were driven by African-Americans. Eve’s Bayou is about these places that seem unreal and about how our minds retain and discard the details of our history.

DocuMondays – The Nomi Song

The Nomi Song (2004, dir. Andrew Horn)

In 1963, author Walter Tevis wrote the novel The Man Who Fell to Earth, and 13 years later David Bowie starred in the film adaptation. Little did anyone realize that the premise of the story: an alien being appears out of nowhere and goes on to achieve fame before dying prematurely was to be copied by a fellow Earthling who would lose his identity in the alien persona. Nomi’s story was much like the operas he loved, very beautiful at its heights, but destined to end in tragedy.

Born Klaus Sperber in Bavaria in 1944, the film really only focuses on his days in New York City in the late 1970s when his career as a New Wave artist occurred and ultimately ended in death. There is wonderful archival footage provided, albeit very low quality, but have footage of performances in the East Village at its cultural height is a treat. The Nomi persona came from the mind of Klaus who combined elements of his native German cabaret, classical opera, Japanese kabuki makeup, and retro 50s futurism. This melange of concepts worked together perfectly, and his set lists would consist of 1930s pop songs, 1960s pop, and his own otherworldly inspired tunes. But what truly made him such a unique act was the mastery of his voice, singing in both a tenor and counter-tenor/falsetto.

The man behind the cleverly designed persona was a conflicting mix and seemed to become much colder and distant as he became more popular. Nomi possessed an androgyny that one interviewee describes as more than sexual, but a removal from normal human emotion. He truly behaved like the alien or robot he pretended to be. There are candid moments caught on film when that fades away. On particular scene involves his appearance in a local access music show in NYC where, instead of singing, he showed off his second talent, making cakes and pies. There are also stories from his back up band and friends of how he hungered for fame, at his heart he wanted to be an opera diva.

Nomi also hungered for companionship, but even his persona was viewed as outsider one to the gay community in the late 1970s. They loved what he did but it seemed that his alien nature made it hard for any man to find him sexually attractive. Friends report in the documentary about his proclivity to go “cruising” and they warned him about the potential for disease by doing this. In the early 1980s, after beginning to compromise his work to be able to put out a marketable album, Nomi discovered strange lesions on his arm and was taking an increasing amount of antibiotics to stay healthy. He was eventually diagnosed with what was called at the time “gay cancer”, more commonly known as AIDs. His final months were sad, as he had turned his back on bandmates earlier and sought out any one who would show him compassion.

While the documentary does an excellent job of telling the story of Nomi’s musical career. However, I found myself wanting to know more about Klaus Sperber and how this young man from Germany developed this psychological mindset. What was the appeal of the idea of retreating into the alien persona? It seems that a lack of companionship fueled but how did it begin. This is an excellent documentary and can be viewed for free on Hulu.

The Nomi Song (Hulu)

Director in Focus: Brian DePalma – Carrie

Some pre-conceived notions about Brian DePalma: Before I get into the review of this first picture in the DePalma series, I will address some ideas I have about this director. Of Mr. DePalma’s films I have seen are Phantom of the Paradise, Raising Cain, Mission: Impossible, and Mission to Mars. I wouldn’t say DePalma is a director I actively dislike, I just have never been overly impressed with him. Without further ado, my first review:

Carrie (1976)
Starring Sissy Spacek, Amy Irving, Piper Laurie, Betty Buckley, Nancy Allen, John Travolta, William Katt, Edie McClure, PJ Soles

I was homeschooled through my entire elementary, middle, and high school grades. So, I was never subject to the sort of direct bullying I’ve seen in countless films and television shows. I definitely was raised in a sporadically religious home and was a quiet kid, so I felt some connections to the character of Carrie White. My ideas about this film from its osmosis into popular culture was that Carrie is a “weirdo” character. I found myself pleasantly surprised by the depth actually brought to her in the film.

In the town of Bates (named after Hitchcock’s nefarious Norman), is the home to quiet and shy Carrie White (Spacek). In the opening of the picture, Carrie experiences her first period while in the girls’ showers at school. Her mother (Laurie), has kept Carrie completely ignorant of her own sexuality and Carrie immediately thinks she is dying. The other girls mock her, tossing tampons at the poor girl as she cowers. Miss Collins (Buckley), the PE teacher chastises the girl and comforts Carrie. As punishment, the girls are forced into an afterschool PE detention, which causes popular girl Chris (Allen) to harbor resentment towards Carrie. Conversely, Sue (Irving) feels bad about the incident and convinces her boyfriend to ask Carrie to the prom. If you are aware of the way this film has been parodied since, then you know how things turn out.

The picture has not aged too well. The majority of the music, particularly a lot of light-hearted montage scenes feel incredibly cringe-inducing. Piper Laurie, who plays Carrie’s mother, is an actress who hasn’t met a piece of scenery she hasn’t enjoyed chewing and that’s fun for the most part. I was reminded of author Stephen King’s cliched zealous fanatic archetype that seems to crop its head in almost all his work. However, I can definitely see how a lot of the high school movie tropes were borne out of this film. Nancy Allen as the uber-bitch Chris does an excellent job and Amy Irving as Sue comes across very genuine.

Where the film won me over was the famous prom scene. Wow! The tension that DePalma is able to create in the moments before poor Carrie is pushed over the edge are breathtaking. He is most definitely a skilled editor, knowing how long to stay on a shot before cutting to a reaction or image related to the previous shot. It’s like a cinematic Rube Goldberg device where every little piece click and leads to the next perfectly. The music here is an homage to the work of Hitchcock’s composer, Bernard Hermann. Hermann died before he could compose the score for Carrie so it was brilliant to make it a reference to his previous works, especially Psycho; four notes of that film’s score are heard repeatedly through the film.

I was most impressed with the portrayal of Carrie White. She was not the “weirdo” or “freak” you might see portrayed in derivative films made since. Carrie shows resentment and anger towards her mother about not being told about her sexuality. She isn’t completely naive and shows reasoned skepticism when invited to the prom. And Spacek’s choices in acting, particularly in her scenes with actor William Katt at the prom are exceptional. I found this to be a great start to my exploration of this director’s films. It wasn’t perfect, but it showed a wonderful sense of pace and restraint that a lot of contemporary horror films could learn from.

Import Fridays – MicMacs

MicMacs/MicMacs a tire largiot (2009, dir. Jean-Pierre Jeunet)
Starring Danny Boon, Andre Dussollier, Nicolas Marie, Yolande Moreau, Julie Ferrier, Omar Sy, Dominique Pinon, Michel Cremades, Marie-Julie Baup, Jean Pierre Marielle

Very few directors working today have as strong a sense of visuals than Jean-Pierre Jeunet. He is as influenced as much by the French New Wave as he by Golden Age Hollywood, and this mash up creates aesthetically clever cinema. But does Jeunet tell interesting stories with well-developed, fleshed out characters? That is a good question.

The story of MicMacs concerns Bazil (Boon) who, as a child, lost his father to a landmine in Afghanistan. Things continue to go downhill for poor Bazil: Mum ends up in a mental hospital, he’s shipped off to an abusive boarding school, escapes, and ends up as a video store clerk as an adult. One night, a shoot out occurs in the front of the store and Bazil takes a bullet in the cranium. After being released from the hospital, Bazil finds his home and job gone but is befriended by Slammer, a homeless man who is part of a collective of eccentrics living in a strange garbage burrow. Bazil also learns the weapons manufacturers responsible for the landmine and bullet respectively. Bazil and his new family embark on a crusade to turn the two men of war against each other through series of elaborate pranks. The film basically takes the revenge pranks pulled on the grocer in Amelie and expands their scope to include human cannonballs and wiretapping.

The film has definite problems. The first is the awkwardness of pairing such a dark subject (war, death, limbs lost to bombs) with Warner Brothers Looney Toons style comedy. It’s definitely a mix that could work, but here it comes off as if Jeunet doesn’t take the concept seriously enough. Another issue I had was with the characters identified as African-French, they all have menial labor jobs or, in the case of Remington the Writer, are objects of comedic relief whose skills are a joke. Jeunet had taken some flack for the “pretty-fying” of France in Amelie and it seems like he’s trying harder this time around, but not much better.

That said, the film is very enjoyable in the same way that the circus or carnival is fun. There’s not much substance but it is fun to look at and will definitely make you laugh. Jeunet has a very clever mind and can devise some schemes that are brilliant. This is not Jeunet’s best, it can be derivative of his previous work at times, but he does take chances and brings some new elements to his art direction. A definite must see if you have the chance this spring/summer.

MicMacs will open in limited release in the US starting May 28th

Charlie Chaplin Month – The Kid

The Kid (1921, dir. Charlie Chaplin)
Starring Charlie Chaplin, Jackie Cooper

The experience of being taken from his mother and placed in a home for destitute children had a profound effect on Charlie Chaplin, and its apparent that those traumatizing childhood experiences had a strong influence on The Kid. Chaplin also seemed to always identify more with the people living at the bottom rung of society’s ladder and that can be seen here as well. At time maudlin and over sentimental, The Kid withstands being simply a mushy film by delivering strong laughs and telling an honest story.

The film opens with a woman newly released from the hospital, having been abandoned by the father. She abandons the child in a parked car and through a series of slapstick circumstances the child ends up in the care of the Little Tramp (Chaplin). The Kid grows up, he and the Tramp embark on a series of neighborhood scams to make ends meet. Eventually, the Kid gets sick and the Tramp must fight to keep his child from being taken from him.

What’s most startling about the film is the abject poverty and dirtiness of the film. These characters truly live in the dankest slums, where violence is a daily and commonplace occurrence. Despite this coldness of the world around them, Chaplin does a wonderful job of conveying the loving nature of the Tramp and the Kid’s household. They are both shown taking care of each other and that’s what makes the scene where the Kid is being taken from the house even more heartbreaking. Some of the plot twists the film takes are ludicrous but they fit with the more earnest tone of that time period.

It’s worth noting that Chaplin had lost a child, who had lived only three days, right before he met little Jackie Cooper and began developing the concept of this film around the young star. It can been seen that Chaplin was working through the issues of his own childhood and his emotions after losing a child of his own. The Kid is not a perfect film, Chaplin made far better, but it does highlight his ability to take short film material and begin to stretch it into longer narratives.

Charlie Chaplin: The Life and Times of a Tramp

Everyone knows the image. Derby, toothbrush mustache, bamboo cane, tattered tramp clothes, the penguin-like waddle. He was the world’s first “movie star” and the first actor to ever be paid a million dollars. His life was an uneven one, to say the least. The American public fell in love with him in the 1910s, only to blacklist him forty years later. He is arguably the great comic actor of all-time, and he has influence comedy on film ever since.

Charlie Chaplin was born in 1889 in London to a couple of music hall entertainers. Both Charlie, Sr. and Hannah Chaplin were singers and actors and influenced Charlie, Jr.’s decision to join the profession. By the age of three though, Charlie Sr. had bolted and Junior had little contact with him after that. Hannah Chaplin was the great tragic figure of the family, having a nervous breakdown in 1895. She, Charlie, and his younger brother, Sydney ended up in Lambeth Workhouse. The boys were moved to a home for orphans and destitute children weeks later. Hannah suffered a second and final complete mental breakdown in 1898 and Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum in Surrey, where Charlie and Sydney paid out 30 shillings a week for her care there. Once established in Hollywood years later, the brothers had Hannah brought to live with them where she spent the remainder of her life.
Charlie’s debut came when, during a rowdy show, Hannah was booed off stage and hit with a thrown bottle. As she sat backstage crying, five year old Charlie came on stage singing the popular song “Jack Jones” and managed to entertain and win over the crowd. In the early 1910s, Charlie toured with the Karno Theater, and worked alongside Arthur Jefferson aka Stan Laurel. Charlie was discovered by film producer/director Mack Sennett whose Keystone Film Company made comedic shorts. In 1914, the Little Tramp character debuted in a short titled Kid Auto Races at Venice. Something about this very simple clown-like character clicked with the viewing public and Chaplin’s popularity rose, causing the shorts to shift their focus from the Keystone Kops to the Little Tramp.
Chaplin’s creation of this character reveals the complex thought process behind his comedy. He wanted the character to contain as many contradictions as possible and wanted to make him appear somewhat ageless in appearance. He wanted the hat to be to small to fit on his head, but the pants and shoes to be comically over-sized. The mustache was an after thought. While the Sennett comedies traditionally focused on broad, exaggerated gestures, Chaplin’s style of pantomime was much more subtle in its humor. Chaplin would improvise little flourish that served to underscore the sweetness of the Tramp in one moment, then suddenly toss a brick at a rival’s head to completely mess with our perceptions of the character.
In 1917, Chaplin left Keystone and signed with Mutual, where he would have tighter creative control of his projects. It was at mutual where he began to expand his films until releasing his first feature, The Kid. In 1919, he co-founded United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and DW Griffith. Here he directed his first drama, A Woman in Paris and subsequent comedies (The Gold Rush, The Circus). Despite the arrival of sound to cinema, Chaplin continued his silent pictures with City Lights and Modern Times, before finally giving in and making The Great Dictator. Chaplin’s film output would lessen and lessen.
In the upcoming month, I plan on watching the Chaplin films I haven’t seen and reviewing them, as well as brief reviews of ones that I have and doing small articles on various aspects of Chaplin’s life (the women he was involved with, his political beliefs, his life after film). Below is a tentative schedule of when I will be posting reviews his films not seen by myself as of yet:
April 1st – The Kid
April 8th – A Woman in Paris
April 15th – The Circus
April 22nd – The Great Dictator
April 29th – Limelight
His films that I have seen and will be covered in more capsule reviews are: The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times.

Shadows in the Cave Digest #03 – March 2010


The Cinematic Small Screen: Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction and Fantasy
The Burton/Depp Collaborations: 1990 – 1999, 2000-2007
Director in Focus: John Sayles – Silver City, Passion Fish
Double Features

Hypothetical Film Festivals

Wild Card Tuesdays
Newbie Wednesdays
Jolly Good Thursdays
Friday Imports
Un prophete (Film of the Month!)
Seventies Saturdays
Maybe Sundays
Blind Date
I’m Here

Next Month: 
– Charlie Chaplin Month!
– A Look at the films of John Waters!

Changes for Next Month: 
– Saturdays become Director in Focus Saturdays 
– Hypothetical Film Festivals become a regular feature on Sundays 
– Jolly Good Thursdays will shift to focus on British actor/director Charlie Chaplin

Newbie Wednesday – Bunny and the Bull

Bunny and the Bull (2009, Paul King)
Starring Edward Hogg, Simon Farnaby, Veronice Echegui, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barrett, Noel Fielding

Note: This film has no planned release date for either theaters or DVD in the US. So, your best bet is to torrent the sucker.

“Come with us now on a journey through time and space”. If you are familiar with the immensely popular British series The Mighty Boosh then those are familiar words to you. The director of that series, Paul King, embarks on his feature film debut, bringing with him some familiar faces in supporting roles as well as the quirky aesthetic sensibilities of his television series.

The premise puts agoraphobic Stephen in the midst a year long hermit period. He is dealing with a trauma that occurred in Europe while he was on holiday with his friend Bunny. The two follow Stephen’s idea of fun by touring the various museums of the continent, but once Bunny takes the wheel things become a lot crazier. They meet waitress Eloisa who is looking for a way back home to Spain, and Bunny decides that once they arrive there, he is going to fight a bull.

The strongest thing this picture has going for it are the inventive visuals. King is definitely a peer to a director like Michel Gondry, in the way he intentionally lets the audience in on the hacked together set pieces. A fast food delivery bag becomes the setting for a flashback in a restaurant. A snow globe becomes the Swiss mountain chateau the men stayed in. A photograph of their train becomes a chain of photos, set against a landscape made of similar snapshots. The Mighty Boosh did the same, and it caused the universe to feel like a timeless fantasy-scape.

The plot on the other hand is not very strong. There’s no real depth to the two main characters, Stephen is a very stereotypical neurotic and Bunny is the typical crazy risk-taker. There’s not attempt to give us more about these characters or attempt to explain their motivations. The rest of the film is populated with set piece characters, such as the dog-milking Polish man, an innkeeper overly fond of her stuffed bear, and a former matador who uses a shopping cart with horns for practice. The film is very pretty to look at, and showcases the cleverness of the director aesthetically, I just hope he can find a richer level of writing for his next film.

Director in Focus: John Sayles – Passion Fish

Passion Fish (1992, dir. John Sayles)
Starring Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Strathairn, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Angela Bassett, Nora Dunn, Sheila Kelly

John Sayles makes films that are a bizarre phenomenon amidst Hollywood culture. His characters are all adults, usually in their late 30s, early 40s. They actually behave like adults. The conflict in these films is muted and commonly unresolved. It’s no wonder he is forced to make films independently. This particular film features the “umarketable” combo of two women in their late 30s and a conflict that is never truly resolved.

May-Alice (McDonnell) is a soap actress paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident. This is the last in a series of disappointments that sends the obstinate woman back to her family home on the Gulf in Louisiana. She goes through a series of in-home caregivers that are driven away by her temper, until she meets Chantelle (Woodard). The two women bond after Chantelle shows May-Alice she’s going to make her work to rehabilitate her body. Each woman learns about the other’s past and through these revelations they grow closer and learn to put down their aggressive facades.

This could have been a very overwrought melodrama, but Sayles is able to make very fleshed out, three dimensional characters. The friends and uncle of May-Alice who come to visit feel very unique in this world. The love interests of both characters feel very real as well, despite not having all that much screen time. Each of these characters feels like they could support a feature, or at least a short, of their own. And May-Alice plays a different role with each person, revealing that the only time she isn’t acting is when it is just she and Chantelle.

This is not a film for the CG driven and big explosion crowd. If you are looking for a thoughtful film about something, and a film that really highlights strong female acting, then I would definitely recommend you pick this up.

Some final thoughts about John Sayles: Sayles is most definitely an independent spirit. His films are not the kind Hollywood would ever think to make, and its a good thing he is there to make them. I can see how his style of muted filmmaking has influenced a lot of similar indie filmmakers today. He never felt a need to be too stylistic with his camera, preferring to make it clean and crisp, while focusing on fleshed out characters who are real people.

Films I watched by this director: Lone Star, Matewan, Men With Guns, Silver City, and Passion Fish