I have a new one up on The Cultural Gutter! Yesterday’s Tomorrow: A Visit to Tativille is a look at one of my all-time favorite films, 1958’s futurist farce Mon Oncle by Jacques Tati. Tati’s third film, and the second to feature the iconic character of M. Hulot, Mon Oncle is a film built largely on the shoulders of the persistent delusion that technology, automation, and progress makes our lives better, more efficient, and more logical and that anything marketed in the name of technological progress is desirable.
Arts and entertainment journalist Jep Gambardella has a problem. Standing in the middle of the swanky pageantry of Roman nightlife at the age of 65, he feels more than a bit foolish and, as a result, lost. When first we meet him, it is amid the thumping techno and drunken revelry of a lavish rooftop party that seems initially that it should be the purview of 20-somethings cutting loose in Ibiza. But through it all strides Jep, resplendent in his stylish suit but feeling increasingly out-of-place amid such bacchanal, even though he is still welcome and desirable as a guest. It is not the nightlife that regards Jep as too old to partake in its frivolous revelry; it is Jep himself. Nor is it a condescending dismissal of the life; although frivolous, Jep is genuinely affection and thankful for the good times and is hesitant to let go of them. There is value, after all, in something that gives us pleasure, no matter how shallow it might be. It is simply that Jep now feels his time among these revels has passed. And although quick with an inviting smile, a companionly arm around the shoulder, or a heart-felt raising of the glass, he’s beginning to wonder what the hell he’s doing at his age still strutting around to booming electronica at four in the morning.
The Devil used to have a lot more to do on Christmas Eve than he does these days, having been supplanted more or less in the Christmas time evil business by retail store owners and Black Friday stampedes. There was a time, however, when Ol’ Scratch regarded the night before Christmas as prime soul-stealing time, what with so many panicked, distressed, depressed, or otherwise vulnerable humans ripe for temptation. Depending on whose folklore upon which we rely, Satan’s midwinter rascalry was combatted by a variety of traditional characters. In Mexico, since time immemorial, they have told the tale of how Pitch the Devil was thwarted in his efforts to corrupt the young and innocent by Santa Claus, who lives on the moon and employed the assistance of his most trusted friend, Merlin the Magician. In The Ukraine, which these days is more concerned with contesting the antics of Vladimir the Bare-Chested Yuletide Goblin, the corrupting efforts of the more unsaintly of the famous Nicks had to be foiled by a hearty peasant in a big furry cap.
Elvis Presley didn’t like his own movies, except maybe Flaming Star and King Creole. He idolized “angry young man” actors like Marlon Brando and James Dean and always hoped that with the right coaching, he might be able to count himself among their ranks. And maybe he could have. King Creole certainly shows impressive flashes. It’s entirely likely that if the proper director or producer had taken the young singer under wing and pushed him along in the right direction, Elvis could have picked up where James Dean left off, or at least gotten close. We’ll never know, unfortunately, because while Elvis dreamed of being the next Dean or Brando, his manager (the eternally villainous Colonel Parker) and studio executives saw him as little more than a bubblegum sweetheart and refused to cast him in anything but family-friendly Frankie Avalon roles.
Karate Robo Zaborgar presented me with the sort of soul-searching conflict that often plagues those of us who worry about the higher philosophical questions in life. On the one hand, it was a presumably loving spoof of one of my favorite genres — the old “tokusatsu” superhero shows of the 1970s, with their karate cyborgs, fringed jeans, motorcycle helmets, random explosions in rock quarries, and theme songs dominated by jazzy trumpets. On the other hand, I watched a similar movie last year — Takashi Miike’s Yatterman — and still consider it one of the worst, most unenjoyable movies I’ve seen in the better part of a decade. My bottomless disdain for Yatterman comes despite the fact that I generally like Miike as a director. Karate Robo Zaborgar, by contrast, was directed by Noboru Iguchi, a director who has yet to make a movie I didn’t dislike. His stock in trade is slapstick splatter send-ups of popular Japanese genres, but done with such juvenile laziness and awkward, ill-realized timing that what should have been outrageous comes across merely as tedious.
Yatterman is a colorful, overblown, largely idiotic live-action adaptation of an anime series from 1977. It’s also a painful illustration of every weak point wildly hit-or-miss director Takashi Miike possesses, while at the same time it fails to highlight any of the thing he does well. Miike’s staunch unwillingness to make anything less than 14,000 movies a week means that if nothing else, he became by virtue of quantity alone a force to be reckoned with in the reeling, post-bubble Japanese film industry, when more and more directors retreated into the realm of the low-budget direct-to-video (and later, DVD) market. Miike’s prolific nature meant that he produced a few incredibly bad movies, a whole lot of mediocre ones, and a few that either were or teetered on brilliant.
Hong Kong stuntman-turned-star Lam Ching-Ying made a whole slew of vampire comedies following the success of his turn in 1985’s Mr. Vampire, and Vampire vs. Vampire is inarguably one of them. Coming on the heels of two official Mr. Vampire sequels, the film stands out for a couple of reasons, not the least being that it marks Lam’s debut as a director. But, to me, the most interesting aspect of Vampire vs. Vampire is the fact that it pits Lam’s character against a Dracula-like, Western style vampire — rather than the jiang shi, or hopping vampires, seen in the previous entries — and in doing so sets some choice gothic elements against the series’ familiar backdrop of Chinese folk magic.
Old Hong Kong movies use the presence of a Taoist priest as a license to print crazy, despite the real world practice of Taoism’s emphasis on quiet contemplation and equilibrium with nature. As these filmmakers would have it, that age old philosophical tradition is all about people shooting cartoon lightning bolts out of their hands, repelling one another with weapon strength, supersonic laughter and, of course, watermelon monsters. In short, exactly the type of religion that might get me to turn my back on my secular ways once and for all.
It is logical, and it seemed easy enough, to begin a discussion of The Cat and the Canary with a discussion of the history of “old dark house” mysteries — those movies where a disparate and largely shifty group of people convene upon a mysterious old mansion and find themselves embroiled in — and probably accused of — either a murder or a theft. Lots of skulking, staring, and clutching hands appearing from behind curtains or the doors of hidden passages ensues. From the silent era to the end of the 1930s, there was a dizzying number of “old dark house” films produced. They were cheap to make, easy to write, and demanded little from the production company or the audience. At their worst, old dark house mysteries were harmlessly entertaining. Often they were much better than that. The formula was so adaptable that it could be grafted onto pretty much any type of movie. Even established series like the Bulldog Drummond and Charlie Chan movies fell back from time to time on the old dark house motif. From horror to comedy to crime to thriller, it was easy to crank out an old dark house version of the genre and keep everyone at least moderately satisfied.
I cannot count “point of view” films among the styles of film making for which I possess much tolerance. Aside from rarely being the least bit convincing as “found footage,” relying as they do on the conceit that assorted people would continue to film an incident long after the extreme danger factor would move just about any human in the world to put down the camera and run, there’s just not too much about them that I find appealing. They’re too jittery, too shallow, too… well, obnoxious. The POV films I’ve seen to date have either proved to have remarkable little staying power (The Blair Witch Project, ground zero for this trend, was fun the first time when I knew nothing about it but becomes less impressive after that) or were simply unwatchable from the get-go (Diary of the Dead). Maybe if they spent less time on characters bickering and screaming “What is that???” while flailing a camera around, I would warm to them.