scary monsters, super freaks: district 9, tokyo!, grace

As the shadow of QT's latest flick, and by some accounts, his cache as a popular and artistically relevant figure in film, slowly disperses - and those weird screamy arias you hear? They're the neo-cons and right-bloggers singing their weird screamy praises for a film that apparently has something to do with the war on terror - let's take a quiet moment to reflect upon the best movie to make the summer scene, a star-less, South African sci-fi actioner that only runs 84 minutes long.

What sets Neil Blomkamp's District 9 apart from the run-of-the-mill summer fare isn't producer Peter Jackson's name over the title, but that it takes a page from sci-fi classics like Blade Runner (1982) and Children of Men (2006). Like those films, District 9 is willing to accept the same sort of limits on the narrative it asks the audience to accept at the outset: that what you're about to see is a moment in time from a diminished and cruel place that's filled with either brutal or cowardly people who arent' likely to find their better angels over the next hour and a half. Blomkamp powers what's essentially a well-bred action pic quickly and smoothly, so much so that it doesn't have the time to ponder the motivation of scientists at Multinational United who obssess over captured alien weapons, or the depravatiy of Nigerian gangsters who squat on the edge of the refugee aliens' camps to barter off-world artifacts for catfood, but instead pauses just long enough to remind us that this is how things are here, so as we move from alien slum to South African suburb to a horrifying secret lab beneath MNU's headquarters, it becomes clear - but never ponderously so - that there's a lot more to overcome in this picture than broken-down spaceships and rampaging alien viruses.

So D9 is paced, yes, but Blomkamp doesn't just chuck a jumble of unconnected ideas into his movie in the hopes that they'll pass for politics; maybe what makes D9 so special for a summer flick is that the political and racial ideas not only give the film a dense moral core, but it makes this movie sing. Lots will no doubt be written about the distant and contemporary history surrounding the setting, and rightly so, but for me District 9 's shanties, forced relocation, and images of terrified and angry aliens rioting had echoes of the narrative here in the United States following the Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, the tragedy of losing one's home, or having to wade past bloated bodies to go break into a corner store for food and diapers was transformed into a kind of shame, that to have suffered so marked those people not as refugees deserving compassion but scorn, just another facet of their cursed and barely-like-us lives they lead. I have to wonder if the abuse and degradation we humans heap on the "prawns" of District 9 wasn't so much about their difference, but our profound disappointment in their vulnerability.

Paul Solet's Grace, about a young, beautiful mother (Jordan Ladd) coping with a zombie infant, is a chockablock with ideas, none of which ever come together the way they should. I really, really wanted to love Grace - Jordan Ladd's after-bar air drumming gave me my only thrill from Deathproof (2007) - and Solet sets up an potentially promising flick with lots of atmosphere, but despite the bravery Ladd and the other actors here show, it's almost as though he ends up squeamish at the prospect of having to film his own horror movie. Grace is not all that bad, but not nearly as good as it should've been.

And for Tokyo!...you know, I generally approach these little omnibus things with some skepticism. Who, except stone cold fanboys and girls wants only a few minutes of your fave director or star? And do those directors ever manage to grasp the limitations of the format enough to give us a little of that good stuff? Anyway, from the top: Gondry, as usual, wanks; Leos Carax's segment, a riff on the giant monster movie, roars off to a fantastic start before it all-too quickly tires out (though I'd be willing to go back and see the advertised sequel); and the always-excellent Bong Joon-Ho turns out an eerie, funny, and heartbreaking piece about Tokyo shut-ins, special tattoos, and Saturday afternoon pizza.

UPDATE, 8.28.09>> Now this - this is the Tokyo story I'd like to see.

david lynch thursday!

"Clay Head with Turkey Cheese and Ants."
Photo, 1991. From the book Images, 1994.


Field Guide to Invertebrates in Film: Mothra

Mothra (1961)

Critter: Enormous, magical member of the order Lepidoptera

Size: Huge- at least 100 m long as a larva (some report Mothra is 180 m long with a 250 m wingspan in the adult stage)

Modus Operandi: Rubber-suit & robot rampage by land, sea and air

How the Menace Emerges: The two twin “tiny beauties” that are Mothra’s representatives are abducted by an evil capitalist pig, and Mothra gets very angry.

End Goal: To save the tiny beauties, somehow implying that this will restore peace on Earth

Ah, finally! An A+ invertebrate flick! Mothra is one of the three films in the Icons of Sci-Fi, Toho Collection DVD set just out this past Tuesday. While the film could have used a bit of clean up, this is its first time out in the US on DVD and it’s uncut, in Japanese and has a killer commentary. Although it’s a classic Toho studio rubber suit monster masterpiece with Ishiro Honda (Godzilla, Matango, Dogora) at the helm, this time, the monster is hardly monstrous. Like King Kong, Mothra is a sympathetic monster. She does wreak havoc in both Tokyo & a faux US city named New Kirk City, but who can blame her. The adorable Mothra is instinctually compelled to do so out of a sense of justice. She’s not angry at Japan or humanity like Godzilla, she just wants her pals back home.

While American sci-fi was busy commenting on the awesomeness of radiation and its fictional capacity to make insects (and anything else) huge, Japanese sci-fi responded to the atomic age in an understandably more complex fashion. There is no real explanation of Mothra’s origins, but she is most likely not a mutant born of radiation, but rather a quasi-religious figure (perhaps fashioned after old animistic kami of old Japan) whose sole purpose is to protect two very special ladies. Her role is to make the world right again, and she doesn’t give a damn who gets in her way.

The tiny beauties live on Infant Island, an idyllic and supposedly uninhabited island that was bombarded with radiation in military tests (a stand-in for Bikini Atoll, no doubt) by the nefarious nation, Rosilica (a satirical stand-in for Russia & America), known for its weapons, capitalist stances and its evil representative in Japan, Nelson. It is Rosilica’s Nelson and his inhumane greed that unleashes Mothra’s wrath on innocent Japan, and the Rosilican government stands behind Nelson’s claim that the tiny beauties are not people but property. It is also Rosilica that provides the atomic heat rays that Japan hopes will kill Mothra. Of course, Rosilica’s high-tech atomic weapons don’t fix anything, in fact, they seem to make things much worse. Mere technology can’t destroy the nature that Mothra embodies, and rather than perishing, she emerges from the blast as a very fuzzy and adorable moth. She then heads straight for Rosilica for some rampaging in deserving New Kirk City. Mothra is a rather simple moral tale, and the tiny beauties bid farewell to Rosilica and their Japanese pals on a sweet note: “May all the world’s peoples live together in peace and harmony!”…or else.

Not only is Mothra chock full of insightful satire and social commentary, it is also a technical masterwork. The Toho studio system was in full swing in 1961, with a stable of excellent actors, directors and special effects folks at the ready. The effects in Mothra are a combination of models, puppets, rubber-suit monsters, remote controlled robots, blue-screen and animation, all of which are rendered beautifully. The planes glide through the sky in formation, shooting rockets with real flames that leave sooty marks and flames on larval Mothra when they land. Mothra undulates just as a caterpillar should, and bounces when she falls. Once in full adult form, she glides through the air with graceful wings that move naturally. Not all of the effects necessarily look real, but with natural lighting, a real physicality and inventive cinematography, all of these effects are convincing enough, and downright impressive.

Nit-picking Science: Mothra is light on entomology, so there’s nothing for me to rip apart here. A physicist may have a better time with stuff like the telepathy-blocking plastic and the atomic heat ray than I could.


get yr release on

Tilda? Tilda? The Tuesday releases are down here, Tilda!

U.S. Region 1>>
- Brave Archer and His Mate (Shaw Brothers production)
- Five Deadly Venoms (reissue)
- Hannah Montana: The Movie
- Husbands (directed by John Cassavetes)
- Icons of Sci-Fi: Toho (box set includes the films: The H-Man, Battle in Outer Space, Mothra)
- Inglorious Bastards 2 (starring Fred Williamson. That's the one good thing about the onslaught of bullshit and hype and bullshit that now accompanies a Quentin Tarantino release - lots of old good stuff - old good region 1 stuff - finds its way to the stores and the websites)
- Julia (2008) – (featuring a stunning performance by one Tilda Swinton, directed by The Dreamlife of Angels' Eric Zonca)
- Last House on the Left (2009) (it is to blarg)
- Pete’s Dragon (this is one of the first movies I remember seeing. This may explain a lot, eh Pike?)
- Surveillance (directed by Jennifer Lynch, if that sort of thing gets you off. However you wanna live your life, man. We don't judge you [We're judging you].... )
- Versus (special edition) (I hear this is so-so, despite it being all samurai'd and ninja'd and zombie'd out)

Multi-region and other foreign releases>>
- Away With Words (PAL UK) (directed by Wong Kar-Wai's uber-talented cinematographer, Christopher Doyle)
- Tea Fight (HK version, VCD) (from Yesasia.com: "[applies] ancient curses, modern duels, underground rivalries, and journeyman adventures to, yes, the art of tea.")

Region 1 Blu-Ray>>
- Go
- Kagemusha (Criterion Collection Blu-Ray directed by Akira Kurosawa)
- Playtime (Criterion Collection Blu-Ray directed by Jacques Tati)


Field Guide to Invertebrates in Film: Tail Sting

Tail Sting (2001)

Critter: Genetically altered members of the order Scorpiones

Size: They start off small, but soon grow to man-sized monsters

Modus Operandi: Annihilate human victims with razor-sharp stingers and crushing claws.

How the Menace Emerges: One of three scientists is overcome by greed and in mid-flight, attempts to steal the mutant scorpions he helped create, but they escape. Inexplicably, they grow much larger and meaner.

End Goal: Rampaging, mayhem

At first, I was under the impression that Tail Sting was a very slight variation on the Snakes on a Plane model: comedy, critters and general tongue-in-cheek absurdity in a tight spot. Then I checked the date. That’s right, folks, Tail Sting predated the Snakes on a Plane phenomenon by a full 5 years. Points for originality, perhaps, but I have a sneaking suspicion that someone else has tried the escaped-critters-on-a-plane trick before.

Still, this film was a bit of a surprise. Prior to Tail Sting, I was fairly confident that the formula for a successfully fun B-critter flick consisted mainly of practical effects, rather than CGI, and a sense of humor that did away with the pretension of self-seriousness. Although this film had both of these prized ingredients, they were not enough to save it from the rubbish heap. Apparently, I need more.

The critters seemed to be based the stars of The Black Scorpion rather than the real deal, and were mostly puppet work, prosthetics and shadow attacks. Kudos to the makers of Tail Sting for giving the folks some homespun creative puppets and camera tricks, rather than succumbing to the CGI cop out, but yet something was still lacking in the final execution. The same goes for its tongue-in-cheek-ness. The pilot, Jack Russell, is named after an adorable breed of small dog, the mysterious Middle Easterners that sneak on the plane & speak of their solemn mission turn out to be electricians, the Goth kid with the German accent is really an American faker, it goes on and on. It tried to be funny (and to make fun of itself), but maybe it tried too hard.

Nit-picking Science: How many times do you people need to be told that scorpions are not insects! Dr. Ryan, you should be ashamed. And whoever heard of a queen scorpion? If there’s one critter that isn’t likely to build up a cozy little commune with her comrades, it’s the scorpion. Although, there is a real Scorpion Queen in Thailand who recently wed the Centipede King, I kid you not.


friday's deep thought

All across the universe, they're waiting...

Will Neil Blomkamp's District 9 count as an entry into our Amber's globally known, locally shown "Film Guide to Invertebrates?" This Saturday, everything will become clear...


get yr release on

Summer's almost over, so you should do like the cast of Alien Trespass and get yr grill on.

Region 1 U.S. releases>>
- Alien Trespass (it's cute. Not that that's bad, but - it's cute, and I'm a straight-up sucker for late 50s-earlier 60s American saucers and pseudo-science)
- Batman vs Dracula/The Batman Superman Movie (it's like they ripped this from my daydreams or something. Does Natalie Portman do the voice of Batgirl?)
- Born in 68
- The Class (2008) (Laurent Cantent's highly regarded French slice o' life)
- Eagles Over London
- I Love You Man
- Katyn (directed by Andrzej Wajda)
- London to Brighton
- Lone Wolf and Cub: Collection 1
- One Day You’ll Understand
- Paris 36
- 17 Again (and hopefully, never again)
- Tale of Sorrow

Multi-region and other foreign releases>>
- Gate of Flesh (UK PAL) (pinku eiga from the brillinat Seijun Suzuki)
- Inglorious Bastards (UK PAL) (the '77 vers)
- Little Drunken Masters (HK version) (VCD) (best title ever?)
- Mega Shark v. Giant Octopus (UK PAL) (okay - that might be the best title ever)
- Sasori (UK PAL) (murder, mistaken identity, and martial arts mayhem! With the great Simon Yam, apparently)
- Three Fellas (Japan Version) (region 2) (looks like it could be an interesting angle on the gangsters-grow-up story)
- Watcher in the Attic (UK PAL) (60s adaptation of sex and weirdness from Japan's classic mystery author, Rampo Edogawa)

Region 1 Blu-Ray releases>>
- Chaos
- The Class (2008)
- I Love You Man


Field Guide to Invertebrates in Film: Attack of the Giant Leeches

Attack of the Giant Leeches (1959)

Critter: Mutant members of the subclass Hirudina

Size: Man-sized

Modus Operandi: Cruising around a swamp, grabbing human victims and depositing them in their underwater cave to feast on them until they run out of blood

How the Menace Emerges: It’s a mystery, but maybe the radiation at Cape Canaveral had something to do with it

End Goal: Dinner

Attack of the Giant Leeches is the Guide’s first foray into leeches, blood-sucking invertebrates that seem so fitting for horror films, and yet so rarely put in an appearance. It’s also our first Roger Corman flick, and while not one of his best, it is infused with all of the fun that comes with Corman’s hand in the production. As in most of his films, there is very little fat in this flick. At just 62 minutes there’s not much time for things to be built up or fall apart. The giant-sized leeches are rubber suit monsters on a plastic sack budget, but they do have creepy mouths and leave convincing leech hickeys on their victims. The characters are caricatures with just enough back story to earn a pass and establish the requisite conflict, sympathy, repugnance and catharsis: the victims deserve to be victims, the Doc is a smart, wily sun of a gun, the useless girlfriend/daughter pours coffee, listens sympathetically and provides a link between the game warden and the voice of science, the sheriff is conceited and useless, our hero the game warden vows to protect the critters of the swamp and get behind the mysterious killings and of course, the moonshine-swillin’ hillbillies are hillarious.

Being a Tennessee gal myself, old school hillbilly horror is one of my favorite B subgenres, and Attack of the Giant Leeches must have been one of the first. While some have claimed that Hershel Gordon Lewis’ Two Thousand Maniacs (1964) was the start and that the post - Deliverance (1972) 70s were the heyday, if Buddy Ebsen has taught us anything it’s that hillbillies have always been fun to make fun of and there’s no exception for horror. In the 70s, the hillbilly horror genre did take a turn away from fun-filled kitsch and drive straight into slasher/psycho-killer/inbred mutant sadist territory, but I’d hardly say that HG Lewis was the inventor of this fine subgenre, and Attack of the Giant Leeches stands as evidence.

Apparently, someone made an absolutely terrible remake of Attack of the Giant Leeches in 2008. Look for it on the Guide someday, although I can’t say I’m looking forward to it.

Nit-picking Science: I may have missed something, but I really don’t recall any science whatsoever in this film. Well, aside from the fact that leeches don’t have arms, but I write that off as on-the-cheap costuming. If you are dying to know more about our armless blood-sucking pals, check out this (barely) film-related dispatch from the American Museum of Natural History.


call my name or walk on by

This being a film blog and all, I suppose it's sort of incumbent that somebody post a little something on the passing of John Hughes.

I can't say that he really had much to do with my own coming out as a film geek, or even as a teen, which I know a lot of people who are probably smarter and/or make more money than I do might claim. Only in the last couple of years have I come to appreciate Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and then only up to where it starts getting all whiny.

But - Breakfast Club was the second R-rated movie I ever saw. And I remember liking it then. And I do still have a thing for Simple Minds stuff from that period. So - John Hughes. There you go.


translated accounts: bruno, los bastardos, adoration

Well, howdy stranger! Go on, sit for a spell by the fire! Don't mind if I keep whittlin' here while you make yourself warm, do ya? And help yourself to some vittles, don't be shy! While you dig into that there chow, I got a story to tell ya, stranger. It takes place in a different time, a more innocent time - back, back, way back: the salad days, a time some 'round here call "July 2009."
See, back then, lots of people were a hootin' and a hollerin' 'bout a little 80-some minute movie called Bruno. It was something called a satire, but a very broad one, done by this comic feller with three names, and some people thought this here movie'd change the way people thought about a touchy subject - homosexuality! See, lots of people seemed to think that the movie was all about homosexuality, and lots of those people were a-feared that plain folks like you and me would take it wrong, that the comedy in the movie would have us laughin' at this character's prediliction fer sleepin' with other menfolk, instead of the scrapes he manages to get hisself inta. But plain folks can catch on to satire, 'specially the broad kinds - see, this comic feller played this here "Bruno" as a very out, very wild, but gentle and well-meaning bumbler who just wants to be famous here in America: this here character is a little bit like them silent movie heroes, ya see? He's on our side from the start, stranger, and we're on his, and what we're really having our guffaws about is just how unrealistic and weird and inappropriate the real live people act around this totally manufactured persona! Ya see, it's not about how silly this feller is - it's about how nasty we can get! I'd say that's pretty clever, huh stranger?
Needless to say, the hubub died down pretty fast about Bruno. Yep, ya don't hear about it so much anymore. Lot of it has to do with the fact that the movie that comic feller made was basically the same one he'd made before, 'bout another gentle and silly ferrner who wanted to find happiness and fame here in America too. You may be surprised to hear this, stranger, but that one was actually a bit more nuanced than Bruno. Though, there weren't no dancin' weiner in that one, and it's not everyday ya get to see one a them, do ya stranger? But there it was, a whippin around and a winkin' with its one little weiner eye there all across multiplex screens, all across America, way back in July 2009...that's something some folks might call just a little subversive, and I admire that comic feller with the three names for that, yessireebob...

I could envision a similar sort of transference Bruno-scolds projected onto Sascha Baron Cohen's flick happening to Amat Escalante's Los Bastardos, which follows the course of one catastrophic Los Angeles day in the life of two undocumented workers Jesus and Fausto, who (also a little like a Sascha Baron Cohen character) have made the mistake thinking that the America represented in hot rod zines and quiet suburban streets is a real place filled with opportunity. Instead, the grim-faced pair suffer the burning hot parking lot where they gather with other early riser day laborers, casual harrasment from rip-off artists and goading by white trash Los Angeleans, and partake in a perverse betrayal (also casually purchased) hiding among the sidestreets and bungalows. Los Bastardos simmers with desperation, fear, and defeat, and it might be easy for more, shall we say, sensitive viewers to see the movie pointing to those elements as making up who Jesus and Fausto are rather than evidence of the walled-off lives they're being forced to lead. So look carefully - in Los Bastardos' most successful moments (and it is a film of moments), it's a devastating and surreal portrait of wrenching, unresolved sadness, a place where there are no room for mistakes. Or being poor and brown.

Atom Egoyan has made a few films about the failure of people to find resolution - or maybe, the right kind of resolution. This presentation of characters who find themselves connected to one another not only by passing incidents, but the narratives that make up the deeper oceans of their own lives continues with Egoyan's latest, Adoration. It may be a little more heavy-handed, a little less true than his brilliant 1997 film, The Sweet Hereafter, but it's probably one of his best ones since. And no, it's not about fucking terrorism: like Amat Escalante's Los Bastardos, you also have to look and look carefully at Adoration. It shouldn't be too hard, though, as it's probably one of the most stimulating films in general release this year.

david lynch thursday!

Don't look so sad, David - people can hear your song when they visit the Denver Projection Booth!

NPR's reporting that a new album put out by Danger Mouse and Sparklehorse may feature a full roster of talented musicians and singers - including one Mr. David Lynch - but some rights disputes may never see it released. Click here for the skinny, and here for DL's Danger Mouse/Sparklehorse team-up.


get yr release on

The knives are back out for Tuesday releases at the Booth.

As I was MIA last week, this week's ed. includes releases from that lost Tuesday as well...

Region 1 releases>>
- Bad Lieutenant (special edition) (now with more Harvey Keitel penis!)
- Big Man Japan (so-so spoof on giant monster movies)
- Bill Plympton’s Dog Days
- Combat Shock (director’s cut) (Troma Films re-release of the super cool, super bleak, super gory homage to Eraserhead and Taxi Driver by way of the Jersey Shore)
- The Green Hornet
- The Green Hornet Strikes Again
- Harvard Beats Yale 29-29 (I rolled my eyes at this when I first saw the poster for this too, but this documentary on a late-60s Ivy League classic has more to do with the changing face of America in the throes of Vietnam and attacks on civil rights leaders than school rings and fight songs)
- Ichi the Killer (3 DVD special edition)
- Repulsion (Criterion Collection directed by Roman Polanski)
- Terry Jones Collection (Monty Python alumnus)
- The 10th Victim ("It is the 21st Century, and society's lust for violence is satisfied by "The Big Hunt," an international game of legalized murder. But when the sport's two top assassins - Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress - are pitted against each other, they find that love is the most dangerous game of all." Pretty cool, eh?)
- The Last Starfighter (25th Anniversary edition) (meh...)
- Machine Girl 1.5 (school girls, ninjas, and chainsaws oh-my via Tokyo Shock)
- Race to Witch Mountain

Multi-region and other foreign releases>>
- Ahhn Joong Keun (Korea version region 3) (here's something you don't see everyday - a biopic of Japan's prime ministerial shooter Thomas Ahnn Joong Keun)
- Ashes of Time Redux (HK version) (all region VCD)
- Plastic City (HK version region 3) (Hong Kong-gangster actioner set in Brazil, starring the fab Anthony Wong)
- Running Wild (All region) (Korean-gangsta-shoot-em-up)
- X-Cop Girls (HK version all region) (More Anthony Wong - you can't wrong!)

Region 1 Blu-Ray releases>>
- 12 Monkeys
- Bad Boy Bubby
- Big Trouble in Little China
- Inglorious Bastards (1977) (see it now before something something)
- Repulsion (Criterion Collection directed by Roman Polanski)
- Sweeney Todd (2007)
- This Is Spinal Tap


Field Guide to Invertebrates in Film: The Hellstrom Chronicle

The Hellstrom Chronicle (1971)

Critter: Multiple members of the phylum Arthropoda

Size: Varies

Modus Operandi: Through their capacities for speedier adaptation, insects are taking over the world and ousting humanity in the process

How the Menace Emerges: Evolution and a bit of thoughtlessness on the part of humanity

End Goal: World domination

Winner of the 1972 Academy Award for Best Documentary, The Hellstrom Chronicle is an oddity: part documentary, part science fiction, all eco-terror. On the whole, it is a nature documentary, but coupled with a foreboding, existentialist narrator, the fictitious entomologist Dr. Hellstrom and an ominous and unnerving soundtrack by Lalo Schifrin. The cinematography is outstanding, which is presumably the reason that it was considered a documentary at all in the 1972 Oscars. It is also what helped a generation of young filmgoers take the over the top Dr. Hellstrom at face value. In the 70s, this film actually disturbed people, convincing them that humanity was on the brink of disaster and that insects were truly taking over. The interesting thing about this is that the insects are merely continuing what they’ve always done, for 300-400 million years. Couching all of this in faux eminent disaster talk doesn’t change a thing. Of course, not all of the footage in this film is nature-show material. This was the psychedelic era after all. In a favorite sequence, rapid-fire edits of the menacing eyespots on moth wings blend into the menacing blips from a huge mainframe computer in an attempt to show both the similarity and the intensity of the war between insects and humans.

Altogether, The Hellstrom Chronicle is an interesting entry into the Guide, as a period piece, as fantastic macro-cinematography, for its weirdness and yes, for its unintended hilarity. I can’t say that I truly think that the marriage of documentary and sci-fi really worked in this one, but I can’t say that it didn’t work well enough. Unfortunately, this is as of yet entirely unavailable in any legitimate form such as DVD. Still, it’s worth asking your internet savvy pal to dig up and burn for you (Thanks, Joel!).

Nit-picking Science: Astoundingly, the science in The Hellstrom Chronicle is, as far as I can tell, very sound. It is the context that these real-life oddities of nature are put in that makes this film less of a documentary than sci-fi. Through this trickery, The Hellstrom Chronicles lured a number of adventurous but unaware filmgoers into theatres to see a trippy, eco-horror flick, and instead handed them a fair amount of bug knowledge (and wonder) along with nightmare-inducing imagery and a false sense of dread. Yipee!