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what i watched last week

Head (Bob Rafelson, 1968). I looked around the house for something Monkee to watch after Davy Jones died. it wasn’t that hard … I’m not a big fan of their music, and think their retrospective climb to glory is a bit silly (although Rob Sheffield did a great eulogy for Jones that almost changed my mind), but I’ve got a DVD with a few of their TV episodes, and Head came packaged with other, better films (like Five Easy Pieces and The Last Picture Show) in the Criterion BBS box. I decided to watch Head, the first BBS film (Rafelson and Bert Schneider having started their partnership on the Monkees’ TV series). It’s mostly junk, although quite ambitious. It’s nothing like the TV series, and it’s hard to imagine any of the band’s fans liking it, so there was no real audience for it, and it bombed. Its reputation has risen over the years due to the later exploits of Rafelson, Schneider, and Jack Nicholson, and it’s now considered a cult classic. It’s incoherent on purpose, works like a series of blackout sketches, and would have been better at 22 minutes than it is at 86. Brownie points for trying something different, but this is 60s indulgence at its worst. The supporting cast adds to the cult status: Annette Funicello, Timothy Carey (great, as always), Sonny Liston, Ray Nitschke, Carol Doda, Frank Zappa, Teri Garr, Victor Mature (enjoying himself immensely), Toni Basil, Tor Johnson, and Nicholson and Rafelson for good measure (the latter two also wrote the script along with the Monkees). It’s a very inventive, ahead-of-its-time film (my vote for most surreal moment is when the Monkees become dandruff in Victor Mature’s hair). But it’s also boring, and the music doesn’t help, at least not for me. Not to mention the rather cavalier use of the famous photo of the execution of a Vietnamese prisoner, which was taken earlier in 1968. It’s borderline offensive, using it as part of a goofy montage. 5/10.

Howl’s Moving Castle (Hayao Miyazaki, 2004). The title edifice is the damndest thing. Given Miyazaki’s love of anything that flies, I expected the castle to float magnificently through the air. Instead, it stumbles around on four legs, like a ramshackle leftover from The Empire Strikes Back, full of marvelous details. It will come as no surprise to Miyazaki fans that the movie isn’t really about the castle, or even about Howl, but rather about a young woman on an adventure. As with all his films, there are moments as inventive as any in cinema’s long history … my favorites this time are the shapeless black blobs that serve as henchmen to the bad court magician (Miyazaki has a way of visualizing the kinds of impossible-looking aliens Philip K. Dick liked to toss into his books). But overall, the film lacks the special magic of Miyazaki’s best (my vote goes to Princess Mononoke). Still, even the worst Miyazaki is 7/10.

Election (Johnnie To, 2005). Not your typical Hong Kong triad film. First off, there really is an election, to choose the new chairman for a long-time triad society. It’s over within fifteen minutes, though, and then things get interesting. It’s not always easy to keep up with the various characters as they seem to switch allegiances, but you always understand that the chairman’s position is tenuous, and that maintaining that position (and the tradition it represents) isn’t easy. Much of the film is taken up with the retrieval of a ceremonial baton … I told you it isn’t a typical triad film. There are few shootouts … to be honest, I’m not sure I can remember any at all. The violence, when it comes, is much less stylish and far more disturbing, with people getting stomped, bludgeoned, beaten, strangled, basically all of the elemental hand-to-hand possibilities you can think of. Contrasted against the rest of the film, which is quite stylish indeed, these violent scenes stand out. There was a sequel, so I have something to look forward to. I was just looking for something to kill time, and I find Johnnie To usually fills the bill. He’s never bad, and sometimes he’s quite good (Vengeance). Election received a lot of critical acclaim (Quentin Tarantino called it the “best film of the year”), and it won Best Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Actor at the 2005 Hong Kong Film Awards. I think that’s going a bit far. 7/10.

Carnival of Souls (Herk Harvey, 1962). This week’s Creature Feature was made for around $30,000; now it’s in the Criterion Collection. Herk Harvey was a director of industrial films (the first film he made after Carnival of Souls was titled Pork: The Meal with a Squeal). This was his only feature (the same is true for screenwriter John Clifford, who often worked with Harvey on those educational shorts). The cast was made of up actress Candace Hilligoss (she was paid $2500) and a bunch of locals in Lawrence, Kansas. (Hilligoss only made one other feature, The Curse of the Living Corpse.) Clifford’s script effectively played around with Ambrose Bierce, cinematographer Maurice Prather served up evocative black-and-white photography, the soundtrack featured eerie organ music by Gene Moore, Hilligoss was solid, and Harvey kept things short and sweet (it was filmed in three weeks, and runs either 78 or 84 minutes, depending on which version you see). It’s hard to describe why Carnival of Souls is good enough for Criterion when so many other cheapie horror films of the time are good for nothing but an appearance on MST3K. George Romero was influenced by it. It bombed at the box office, but developed a cult following early on thanks to late-night TV showings on, yes, Creature Feature shows. It isn’t quite like any other movie, and if it could have used a little bigger budget and a couple more good actors, it still does very well with its limited resources. 7/10. (This ends the regular Creature Feature segment of my blog, but I’ll have something new coming next week. I did 13 Creature Features, with 4 getting 7/10, 6 getting 6/10, and 3 getting 4/10.)

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