Songs from the Second Floor (2000)
★ / ★★★★
Kalle (Lars Nordth) was a furniture salesman who had recently gone out of business because his store was set on fire. His fears of not making ends meet permeated through other aspects of his life. Specifically, his frustration regarding his son’s recent psychological break was magnified because his child didn’t seem to show signs of improvement. But fear and frustration were not the only emotions that the picture tried to explore. It had a certain tenderness, a proclivity, for the absurd. For instance, the interminable traffic jam where all cars seemed to go in one direction, a group of people willing to murder a little girl for opaque reasons, and buildings that moved on their own. “Sånger från andra våningen,” written and directed by Roy Andersson, was ambitious because it attempted to tackle the big questions, events, and feelings prior to the year 2000. However, the messages weren’t clearly communicated because most of its symbolism took precedence. It didn’t help that there was little dialogue for the characters to be able to express their thoughts and feelings. I was desperate to piece together all the information it threw in the air but when I looked back at the big picture, I found it to be a rather confounding experience. I would have preferred if the film focused on Kalle as a guilty father and an even guiltier businessman with the strange vignettes either minimized to a side thought or excised completely. The vignettes, though visually appealing, disrupted the momentum of Kalle realizing that perhaps he was leading a rather empty life. To him, a meaningful life meant being financially successful. When his occupation was taken away, he didn’t know what to do with himself. I felt his pain through the way he treated his son. Instead of trying to understand his son’s condition by being a little more sensitive, Kalle screamed at him, ironically, like a madman. Being a businessman, he was used to being forceful to customers but such an approach was ineffective when dealing with a person who wasn’t quite there. When the picture focused on personal struggles, I found it engaging. Furthermore, I was fascinated by the movie’s attention to detail in terms of imagery. The walls were always grayish green, devoid of paintings, and an overall sense of warmth. Kitchens and bars resembled the impersonal feel of hospitals. People sat in restaurants but there was no food to be found. It looked like no one was ecstatic to be alive. “Songs from the Second Floor” was a challenging film. Although it completely embraced its bizarre nature and occasionally contained scenes that made me think, its walls at times were too high for me to climb. Perhaps when I reach middle age, I will come to appreciate it more. One of the characters emphasized the importance of having life experiences. It was a humbling reminder that perhaps I have a long way to go.
Vernon, Florida (1981)
★★ / ★★★★
“Vernon, Florida” showcased a group of people with different eccentricities. Among them were a couple who claimed that their jar of sand was growing because of radiation, a man with a pet turtle (who didn’t think it was a turtle but a gopher), a cop with nothing much to do, a sermon involving the several meanings of the word “therefore,” and most interesting of them all, a man with a passion for hunting turkeys. Directed by Errol Morris, half the fun of the picture was in allowing the subjects to speak to us as if we were right there in front of them. Their accents were sometimes difficult to decipher but it didn’t matter because the nature of the one-way conversation was so fascinating. I knew I was interested in what they had to say when they mumbled or stumbled over their words and I leaned closer to the screen to grasp at the evanescent words. Unfortunately, more time were given to some people than others. I wanted to know more about the gentleman who grew worms. I don’t particularly like worms but I was interested in his occupation and his point of view about why raising worms was important. He was only given two or three scenes. However, I was happy that the picture always returned to the obsessive turkey hunter. The description he gave about where and how he would hunt was so vivid, it almost left like we were following him in the hunt. I was surprised that each pair of turkey feet he had on his walls, initially very creepy, had a special story. I didn’t know whether to laugh or worry when he began to have a fierce look in his eyes as he described every delicious detail about the joy of shooting a turkey. As the film went on, the more I realized its wicked sense of humor. Most of the people being interviewed were the elderly and it was difficult to tell whether they still knew what was going on. Did they really believe in what they said, especially the couple who thought that the sand they obtained from New Mexico was indeed growing? Nevertheless, Morris didn’t make fun of the individuals being interviewed. There was one scene I was particularly impressed with which involved a man mentioning another who didn’t believe in a higher power. Just when I thought he was about to make a remark against those who didn’t believe, he highlighted a commonality between a believer and a non-believer. Even though he was a devout Christian, he knew it wasn’t his place to judge. I wish we had a chance to spend more time with him. “Vernon, Florida” was a piece of evidence that there are interesting things embedded in the mundane. Its slice-of-life style was endearing, amusing, and it was loyal in celebrating of our differences.
★★★ / ★★★★
Cameron Vale (Stephen Lack), a homeless man, was drugged by men in a shopping mall after he gave a woman seizures with his mind. He was taken to Dr. Paul Ruth (Patrick McGoohan), a scientist who worked with a company called ConSec, to teach Cameron how to control his strange but powerful abilities. There, he learned that he was a scanner, someone who had the ability to become one with another entity that contained a nervous system, not simply a person who had the ability to read minds. Eventually, Cameron was given the assignment to hunt down a rogue scanner named Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) and stop his plan of world domination by eliminating human beings sans gifts unique to scanners. Written and directed by David Cronenberg, “Scanners” had a strong concept which used spy movies as an inspiration to tell a fascinating science fiction film. It wasn’t just about one chosen man trying to stop another driven by an insane crusade. It was also about voiceless underground groups easily used as a scapegoat by those in charge, the government’s experimental programs involving espionage and advanced weaponry, and the corporations that benefited from lives that had been unnecessarily sacrificed. The concept was as strong as the actors’ performances. Ironside stood out as the villainous Revok. He reminded me of a less deranged Jack Nicholson in movies like Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining.” He had just the right dosage of insanity in the eyes and a creepy voice to match his dark ambitions. Meanwhile, Lack played a character that we couldn’t help but root for. Although he didn’t know who he was, he forged on in order to find the truth. He strived to protect those not unlike him, like Kim Obrist (Jennifer O’Neill), scanners who were forced to live underground while trying to find their own versions of a peace of mind. Ironically, his lack of reason to keep moving forward was exactly the reason why we wanted to see him succeed. “Scanners” was without a doubt a B-movie which unfairly came to be known as a movie with exploding heads. Yes, some scenes were grotesque because Cronenberg wasn’t afraid to show purposefully fake-looking blood seeping from a human body and guts being thrown on walls. But there was only about two or three scenes that featured exploding heads. The film was actually philosophical, intelligent, and unpredictable. It had great focus in exploring the relationship between the human body and technology that came to influence Cronenberg’s later projects. Those searching for atypical work will most likely found “Scanners” enjoyable.
★★★ / ★★★★
Bazil (Danny Boon) grew up as an orphan because his father was killed by a bomb. On an unlucky night while working in a video store, he was hit on the head by a stray bullet. However, he wasn’t killed despite the fact that the surgeon left the bullet lodged in his skull. A couple of months later, the unemployed Bazil teamed up with strange individuals with even more unconventional talents to bring down two arms dealers (André Dussollier and Nicolas Marié) by setting up a series of pranks that would drive them out of business. Bazil wanted to avenge his father’s death and what had happened to him by eliminating weapons used to kill. “Micmacs,” covered in sleepy yellow glow, was a droll comedy with spoonfuls of interesting imagery. I have to admit that it took me a little bit of time and effort to get into its story. I found out that the more I tried to figure out the plot and where it was going, the more I ended up feeling confused about why events transpired the way they did. A third into the picture, I decided to sit back and just enjoy the ride. Almost immediately, I found myself entertained with the way the dysfunctional family incorporated their talents to spy on the arms dealers. Each scene had its own level of excitement because the gadgets the characters used were essentially scraps from a junkyard. Imagine kids retelling their version of Brian De Palma’s “Mission: Impossible” with objects they found around the house. It was impressive (and amusing) in its own way because the filmmakers wished to showcase their many inspirations, mostly silent films with comedic edge, from under their sleeves. I also enjoyed the way the various characters communicated to each other. Because they were so strange, sometimes a wink during awkward first impressions or a nudge in order to direct attention to a unique invention or a smirk at the dinner table was enough to portray their thoughts and feelings. “Micmacs à tire-larigot,” directed with great imagination by Jean-Pierre Jeunet, wouldn’t fail to put a smile on someone’s face because of its whimsical and bona fide sense of humor and creativity in terms of revealing the illusion between our expectations (what we could hear, see, and feel) and other possibilities which weren’t necessarily transparent to us. Despite its common angle of a dysfunctional family, members of which were unaccepted by society, coming together and working toward a common goal, there were plenty of small twists so the material felt refreshing. I admired the film’s final image of a dress, with a help from a machine, looking like it was dancing with posh and grace. It made me feel like a child again because my eyes were so transfixed at its movements. It was like watching a magic trick.
James and the Giant Peach (1996)
★★★ / ★★★★
James (Paul Terry) lived with his egocentric aunts (Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes) ever since his parents died in a car accident. His guardians were very abusive, often sending him off to clean up after them, calling him worthless, teasing him about being an orphan and not having friends, and leaving him off to feed on scraps from the garbage. But when an old man (Pete Postlethwaite) gave James some magical green “crocodile tongues,” the boy’s life had a chance to finally change for the better. But first he had to escape the horrible household, cross the Atlantic Ocean, and make his way to New York City. Adapted from Roald Dahl’s story, “James and the Giant Peach” worked mainly for children but it had enough darkness to keep the older audiences engaged. While the film was full of energy, especially the first-rate stop-motion animation scenes with the eccentric bugs (Susan Sarandon as Miss Spider, David Thewlis as Earthworm, Simon Callow as Grasshopper, Richard Dreyfuss as Centipede, and Jane Leeves as Ms. Ladybug), the scenes when James had to deal with the feelings of abandonment due to the death of his parents and his yearning to be free from an abusive household carried a certain level of gravity. It was touching, sometimes a bit melodramatic, but we could not help but root for James because a child should not had to endure so much. However, admittedly, I enjoyed the picture more when I was a kid. While some of the jokes were still amusing, I wished the story had focused more about James instead of the bugs. After all, it was supposed to be about James learning to make new friends, despite how strange they may have been, after a considerable amount of time in isolation. The stop-motion animation and character development should have formed a kind of synergy instead of one getting in the way of another. Nevertheless, when I look at the big picture and its possible impact on its intended audiences, the movie was enjoyable because its high level of creativity in terms of its visual puns and wordplay. Directed by Henry Selick, “James and the Giant Peach” offered a strange universe with creepy images and eerie atmosphere but it wore its heart on its sleeve so kids should not be disturbed by its darker undertones. Younger kids may question their parents about death but I do not think it is a subject that parents should shy away from because it is a natural part of life. In fact, tackling the subject should further highlight the fact that, like the giant peach, life is indeed quite magical.
Village of the Damned (1960)
★★★ / ★★★★
It was an ordinary day in an English village which suddenly turned extraordinary when the townsfolk fell asleep at the same time. Calls from people who wished to contact the villagers could not go through so they began to worry. Whenever someone from the outside crossed an invisible line, they, too, fell asleep. Officials concluded there must have been a force field or a biological agent involved that explained the strange phenomenon. When the villagers woke up, a few months later, the women made the discovery that they were pregnant. I found this movie fascinating because of its strong concept and consistency to keep me guessing. I admired it for not simply relying on the creepy blonde-haired children to generate chills. It actually took its time trying to explain the weird situation the village was thrusted into by monitoring women at various points in their pregnancies. We learned a handful of weird details even when the children were still in the womb such as their rate of development being faster than a normal human being which suggested, as my first hypothesis, that the kids may have been extraterrestrial by nature. But the picture did not give us defined answers. It asked questions like the children’s purpose, but the writers made an astute decision to simply offer the audiences several explanations and it was up to us which, if any, we wished to accept. The film constantly changed gears. When the kids were about three of four years old, led by David (Martin Stephens), son of a couple (George Sanders, Barbara Shelley) suggested to have been trying to conceive but to no avail, we learned that the kids had various psychic abilities. Paranoia covered the town like a permanent fog and the regular folks’ discrimination almost made me feel sorry for the kids. Wolf Rilla, the director, successfully tried to make us sympathize for the children so the material felt dynamic. Since they were so different, the people in the village did not quite know how to deal with the blonde-haired children. It was easy to relate the situation to the real world where educators struggle to find a way for gifted children to meet their true potential. The ostracization by their peers is another factor. “Village of the Damned,” based on John Wyndham’s novel “The Midwich Cuckoos,” had imagination but it did not result to gore or violence. The small details were the factors that sent chills down our spines. The story may have taken place in a small village but the ideas surpassed borders on the map–or in this case, force fields.
Children of the Corn (1984)
★ / ★★★★
After church, Job (Robby Kiger) and his father went to a diner for breakfast. It seemed like a regular Sunday in Gatlin, Nebraska but something sinister happened. The kids started to give each other strange looks and the next thing we knew, they started killing the adults around them. The only kids who did not seem affected were Job and his sister (Anne Marie McEvoy) who had a gift of foretelling events through drawing. When a couple (Linda Hamilton, Peter Horton) accidentally ran over a boy, they eventually decided to stop by Gatlin to report the incident. The picture started off strongly. The thought of kids murdering people without reason, including their parents, gave me the creeps. I was curious about what triggered the strange events and the endgame of those involved. Unfortunately, the film failed to give any answer. Instead, it spent half of its time showing us the couple driving on a seemingly interminable freeway. While their interactions were somewhat amusing and the establishment of their characters necessary, there wasn’t enough edge to hold my interest. I saw one distraction after another which made me think about the weakness of both the writing and the execution. I wanted to know more about the psychic sister. What made her and Job unsusceptible to the urge to commit murder? Instead, the picture focused on the many speeches of Isaac (John Franklin) and almost caveman-like Malachai (Courtney Gains). It was obvious that the material wanted to comment on taking religion too seriously along with their respective scriptures word-for-word, but focusing on that one aspect diminished the creativity and imagination that should have been applied to the overall story. It would have been more haunting if the monster or devil known as “He Who Walks Behind the Rows” was not shown but merely implied. It wasn’t that I was unconvinced my the special and visual effects (I’m always more concerned about the concept), but the idea that some force could drive children to madness was enough. Sometimes simplicity is key. It just needed to elaborate on its big ideas and consistently raise the bar instead of recycling horror movie clichés. Based on Stephen King’s short story and directed by Fritz Kiersch, “Children of the Corn” was a huge disappointment because it had such a promising first scene. When the couple walked around a seemingly abandoned small town, I felt like I was there. It needed more creepy moments like that instead of its dull fixation on human sacrifice.