Favorite Older Films First Viewed in 2013 (Part 3 of 5)

This is a list I first saw on Rupert Pupkin Speaks. The idea is to list your favorite films from the past year that you saw for the first time, but exclude new releases. This allows much more variety and creates a lot of great suggestions if you read many of them.

Since I tracked these films much more closely this year my list grew long. I will occasionally combine selections by theme, but there is enough for five posts. These choices are in no particular order.

Enjoy!

Maya (1966)

Maya (1966, MGM)

This is one of two titles that appears on this section of the list thanks to their being made available by Warner Archive. This is one of the great things about Warner Archive is that they do rescue these titles from obscurity. This was one of Jay North’s rare film roles after Dennis the Menace was done airing, and it was apparently popular enough to spawn a TV-Show spin-off that ran for a season, which starred both himself and his sidekick Rajid Khan.

Maya tells a simple tale of a boy who runs away in India after a fight with his father, but does so very entertainingly and creates great adventures, and a wonderful bond between its two leading characters.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955, MGM)

If you like films that take place all in the course of 24 hours it’s kind of hard to do better than Bad Day at Black Rock. The film brilliantly takes its time, paints xenophobia and builds tension. Furthermore:

This film sets itself up so well and does things that work in its favor constantly. It deals with xenophobia, with regards to its ghost character; it deals with the stranger-in-a-strange-land trope brilliantly, with its protagonist; however, it also makes the paranoia felt in this town so palpable the lead is instantly on the defensive, such that you’re left unsure as to what his business in town is. It’s a cloistered and oddly claustrophobic tale, in what looks like an inhabited ghost town that’s well worth watching.

Bolt (2008)

Bolt (2008, Disney)

This was one of my more fortuitous viewings of the year. It was already into my March to Disney theme it was early on a Sunday, before you even ponder doing much of anything, and this came on Disney Channel. I found myself not only pleasantly surprised that this was a good Disney animated feature of recent vintage that I didn’t give a fair shake when it was released theatrically, but also that it shared similar themes and topics as a classic with modernized touches.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971)

Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971,  Apollo Pictures)

When you’re dealing with the two titans of Italian horror you’re lucky to find a new-to-you film. Recently, prior-to-its-reissue, I happened upon a region-two DVD of this hard-to-find film.

When one gravitates towards Italian horror and starts to navigate it, one is generally made aware of the two most titanic figures in it: Argento and Fulci. Many viewers make it seem like you have to embrace one and scorn the other. I do not believe that is so. They both operate in rather different ways, but this title perhaps could be viewed as the closest to there being a stylistic overlap, certain tropes are similar: the approach to the narrative highly stylized, while the protagonist “witnessed” the incident in a dream, or fugue state early she (like us) is trying to make sense of what she saw, to identify the culprit, going in chase of them parallel to police activity, and independent of them.

A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin may not be Fulci’s greatest work, but it is another great work of Fulci’s I was glad to discover.

The Smart Set (1928)

the-smart-set

I will admit there is an unevenness to the lead performance in this title. William Haines is a jokester who has to start realizing the consequences of his actions and be brought back down to earth. He loves a girl, he’ll want to win her. Perhaps one of the brilliant things about the film is that is does work despite the fact that for about 30 minutes Haines seems to be enacting a slapstick performance from the decade prior. However, when he starts acting more like a person he is pretty good and charming. The film is funny, romantic and dramatic and really starts to kick into gear. This was a film I discovered thanks to Coy Watson, Jr.’s biography, and he does brilliantly in his small role. The standout may be the reconstructed, gorgeous score of the film. Many thanks to Warner Archive for that and for making this great film available.

Sisters (1973)

Sisters (1973, AIP)

One way I chose selections for 61 Days of Halloween was Stephen King’s list of standout horror films from 1950-1980. On it a few selections were Brian De Palma films. I went into this film a virtual blank slate and was very glad I did.

Sisters is a great little gem. I use that term because it starts with a fairly small series of events one after another that slowly turn in to a much bigger plot than was intimated at first. The simple Hitchcockian mystery element gets more byzantine as it progresses; even throwing some last second misdirection, making certain things even weirder than they are.

Hell Night (1981)

Hell Night (1981, Compass International)

This is a choice I owe completely to my being invited to participate in my first ever podcast as a guest. Because of that I finally got around to viewing this film. If you want more in depth discussion of the film you can go check that out. For a quick blurb that may convince you, read this:

It may be another slasher, another slasher with college co-eds but it does try to spice things up. Firstly, the four pledges who are locked in the house of ill-repute overnight are two different factions: those very much into the fraternity/sorority process and those not so enamored with the idea, doing it because they feel they have to.

And as mentioned on the podcast, it does masquerade as a haunted house film a bit which gives it an additional layer.

The Neverending Story (Original German Cut) (1984)

The Neverending Story (19484, Warner Bros.)

This was an alternate cut that I didn’t even know existed until I saw an announcement from Diabolik DVD. If you’re interested in specific, detailed explanations of what changes in this version the IMDb does have an exhaustive user-submitted list.

In short: some of the voice talent is different, the score is different, some scenes play out longer and better. You have to be a huge fan of the film to want to pay to get this version (the Blu-Ray is region-free, by the way), but if you are it’s well worth it, as there is a different, at times darker feel to it. It also has a German dub that I may try out one day.

Dead Souls (2012)

Dead Souls (2012, Chiller)

There are a few noteworthy things about this film. First, it’s the newest title and second it’s the only made-for-TV movie that appears on the list. It’s one that I wish I had sneaked into my 2012 BAM Awards. As it stands, I didn’t and it makes an appearance here.

What this film does that’s slightly off the beaten path is that it plays out like a haunted house/ghost story, but also has an element of occult building and that puts it’s own spins on the events.

It leaves its protagonist John (Jesse James) alone much of the time. That’s good for character work, especially when there’s an expressive actor in tow. James has a natural sensitivity that exudes off the screen and allows him to carry the vehicle quite easily. He effortlessly handles the notes he has to play in the film: thoughtful, quiet, scared – and, upon learning what he deals with, feeling an emotional pull to the place and his family he’d never known. He does brilliant work here.

It’s definitely worth checking out.

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Once Upon a Time in the 80s: The Neverending Story (Part 12 of 17)

Note: This piece contains in depth story analysis. It is not recommended reading if you’ve not seen the film.

Five Films

We’ve taken a very broad look at the 80s. Now I want to take a closer look at five films that in their own unique way captured a different part of the 80s flavor. In my opinion, they are at least great pieces of entertainment, and on some level great films. One film The Neverending Story I rediscovered as an adult; one, Parenthood, I saw as a child, the other three I saw for a first time as a mature viewer. Each of them capture the character and magic of the 80s in their visuals, plot and themes and in such a different way I’ve included them all here:

The Neverending Story


The Neverending Story (1984, Warner Bros.)

This is a film adapted from a book, which was a phenomenon written by German children’s author Michael Ende. It was produced entirely in Germany with an English-speaking cast thus the official title of the film is Die Unendliche Geschichte. The film was directed by Wolfgang Petersen. This was, in fact, his follow up to Das Boot. This is a film I watched anew after many years of not having seen it anywhere. I first saw this when I was in the fourth grade. In fact, it was screened to us before we went on a field trip to see the sequel. The next time I saw this film again was a year or two ago on cable (as of this writing). I was absolutely amazed by the sheer fantasy and wonder of this film. The affect this film has is timeless and perhaps it’s even more profound now.

The tale is about a boy named Bastian (Barret Oliver), this name does carry symbolism as it is similar to bastion, and our protagonist lives in a dream-world. Ironically, he will visit a world of fantasy and there will be created another great symbiosis of the 80s. The difference between adults and children is also drawn out right away in this film. His father (Gerald McCraney) yells at him because he was drawing horses in class. Bastian corrects him and says they were Unicorns and his father doesn’t understand what he said. This is fundamental dichotomy: Adults lose their imagination and prefer pragmatism. 


We see the plight that makes Bastian escape to his fantasy world when three bullies accost him. As fate would have it, he stumbles into a book store run by Mr. Koreander (Thomas Hill). Barret Oliver was a young actor of some note in the 1980s, he was no Henry Thomas but he had some good performances, this one was not especially convincing. It is especially weak when he challenges Koreander saying he does read. This meeting introduces one of the many towering concepts these ideas are amazing on their own but we find them all here in one gem of a film. These concepts are: 1) A story that has no end, 2) Fantasia is the world of human fantasy and has no borders, 3) Fantasia is starting to die because people have begun to lose hope, 4) The Nothing, 5) The reader is actually part of the story. 


The Neverending Story (1984, Warner Bros.)

Great concepts are essential to a good fantasy and here we have it five great ones. I will expound on them now. Obviously the narrative within cinematic context must end but the idea of this book Bastian finds doesn’t is that everyone who reads it forms the story. All the imaginations of the world form their universe; it’s great. The first example of the great production design is the book that contains The Neverending Story. It has on its cover two snakes that are eating each other which give us an alternate symbol for eternity. 


The story he experiences (isn’t that what we do with the very best stories, experience them, we also don’t want them to end) takes place in Fantasia which is the world that is created by the dreams of human beings. What’s great is that there is an inference that we will identify with this story because everyone who reads this book will shape the tale and they are ultimately the ones who will save Fantasia. 


All this talk of saving Fantasia leads me to the next great idea. The Nothing is literally nothing, the film explains this right away “A hole would be something no it was, nothing,” the Rock Biter says. The Nothing has come about because people have started to lose hope and have stopped dreaming. “And people who had lost hope are easy to control.” The reader, Bastian, must complete the story such that Fantasia can be saved. Thus, we can also infer a grander vision that every time someone some one stops dreaming part of Fantasia dies. Its fate is always in the balance.


The Neverending Story (1984, Warner Bros.)

The reader’s active participation in the story is also a great touch. Everyone at one point or another wanted to shape the story they were reading. This is a great piece of fantasy and in this manner the film has two heroes: Atreyu (Noah Hathaway), who goes on a classic fantastical quest to try and save the Childlike Empress, whose death would end Fantasia; and Bastian, who manages to recreate Fantasia even when there was only a speck of sand left just by the power of his imagination! This also creates another bookish film a lá The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh which is less a cinematic adaptation but embracing of two separate art forms. 


The flow of this story is unbelievably smooth and quick. While it’s a little over 90 minutes long a bad or poorly paced 90 minute film can feel like it’s two hours long or more. We are introduced to the idea of the nothing by an assorted cast of fantastic creatures: a night-hob, a racing snail and a Rock Biter, a rock-formed creature that eats rocks. They travel to the Ivory Tower, this is one of the magnificently designed sets of the film, even though this first shot is probably just a matte painting it is just fantastic. Then there are The Swamps of Sadness, Engyebook’s Hut and the Ivory Tower itself are as other examples of fantastic sets made for this film. At the Tower news of the Empress’s illness and its connection to the Nothing are given and a brave warrior is called to go on a quest to find the one who can defeat the nothing, one who lives beyond the boundaries of Fantasia.

Atreyu proves he’s the one who’s meant to go on this quest; Noah Hathaway had a great fantastical accent which seems as if it was an amalgam of British and Australian speech patterns. Bastian immediately identifies with Atreyu and we identify with both of them in turn. It seems the amount of symbiotic connections this film makes is endless. The two snakes turn out to be the AURYN, a magical amulet that protects the wearer. Yet another classic fantasy element; it’s such mishmash and yet the story itself is so much more unique than most 80s fantasy like Legend, which was purposefully a combination many fantasy epics.


The Neverending Story (1984, Warner Bros.)

Atreyu journeys through the Swamps of Sadness where if you let the sadness that emanates from the place get to you, you will sink into the mud and die. He is brave and makes it but his horse Artax dies. This is a huge event not only in the film’s dramatic context but production-wise this is a bold move in a kid’s movie where only someone like Disney usually had the guts to do something like that. He then encounters Morla the Ancient One. The dialogue in this scene is great. Morla keeps referring to itself as “we” and Atreyu asks “Are there more than one of you.” The response “We haven’t talked to anyone in so long. So we started to talking to ourselves.” Morla later starts sneezing because it’s literally allergic to youth.

He’s told he must go to see the Southern Oracle, which is more than 10,000 miles away. As Atreyu walks dejected through the swamp, we see class at Bastian’s school is no longer in session but he stays to continue reading because he can’t put the book down. Atreyu is taken most of the way by Falkor a full animatronic luck-dragon that was 43-feet in length. There Atreyu meets Engyebook and Urgl an old couple who fight incessantly. Engyebook is a scientist and does everything experimentally and never takes a chance in his life. There are two gates you must pass before reach the Oracle are giant twin sphinxes, these are another pair of great symbolic moments. The premise of the first gate is that anyone who doesn’t feel their own worth is destroyed by the gate. Beams shoot out of the sphinxes eyes and kill the unworthy. We see a man in armor get burned. This film stayed PG oddly enough despite the fact that we see his face burnt to a crisp and the statues have large exposed breasts. Atreyu makes it through after some trepidation and the second gate is the magic mirror gate where he must come face to face with his true self and who does he see in the mirror but Bastian. This is the second time Bastian is given a hint that the people in the story know of him. The third time the Empress pleads outright with him telling him every place Bastian had followed Atreyu and pleads for a name.

This film has developed quite a cult following although it had quite a good run at the box-office. There are many websites online dedicated both to the film and the novel. The seemingly great mystery of the film is what Bastian’s mother’s name is because this is the Empresses new name. He yells it out the window during a storm and it seems purposely drowned out. On the DVD there is no subtitle to tell us what he says even when you have the feature on. This is one of Petersen’s greatest touches. It could be any kid’s mother’s name, even though if you listen carefully you can decipher it (hint: it’s the same thing he says in the book.). His best work was in adapting the novel to film. He didn’t try to adapt the whole thing, but saw a definite point where the novel stops telling one story and starts telling another. At page 180 of the novel Bastian has saved Fantasia, in the book he goes there and it wanders off into battles with Xiathis, which are used and terribly adapted in the sequel. Petersen had great foresight and knew, this is the best part of the book, and this is my film, Ende can keep the rest.


The Neverending Story (19484, Warner Bros.)

The Neverending Story is a great departure for Wolfgang Petersen. It is also a monumental fantasy, and perfect for the 1980s where it seemed people were starting to lose hope, and they had some good reasons to, but the cinema was trying to give them something to hold onto. The novel was on the bestseller list in Germany for four years and the film became a phenomenon in and of itself. It’s a little gem that could only have been a product of the 80s. 


End Notes

Miraculously the film does succeed as Oliver is a supporting player. The film does have kinks in its armor like why an attic key is so easy for him to find in a school but it still works and you’ll see why.

In Ende’s novel the land is called Fantastica but it was changed to Fantasia in the film so that people would have a name they could identify with and also to make allusion to the Disney film.


Morla is a giant tortoise who literally is the Shell Mountain. It’s gender is never established one way or another, however, if forced to guess I believe Morla is a woman.

Once Upon a Time in the 80s- Special Effects (Part 3 of 17)

Note: This is a recapitulation of a paper I wrote in film school. It will be published here in installments. This is part three you can read part one here and part two here.

The 1980s were marked by the emergence of the computer into mainstream American culture. The increasing accessibility and availability of this tool made its impact on the entertainment industry in a very powerful way. In 1984 one of the most famous commercials of the year was Apple Computer’s ‘Big Brother’ a play on Orwell’s 1984. While unlike the 90s where computers would soon come to reside in well over half of America’s households, and the science fiction aspect and the improbability of the device was demolished; they were becoming a much more practical tool.

The key in revolutionizing computerized effect lay with one man. In 1977 George Lucas formed Industrial Light and Magic to create the effects for Star Wars. Working out of Marina County California his company soon started to work on effects for many films. Their first heavy volume of releases was in 1985 with Back to the Future, Cocoon, Explorers, The Goonies and Young Sherlock Holmes which with ‘The Stained Glass Man’ had the first fully computer generated character. The rest was history in 1986 comes Aliens which took the computer generated character to the next level and it’s been an ongoing game of “Can You Top This?” ever since.

The fact that the special effects craze came about in the late 70s and grew exponentially in the 80s is like kismet. This was a decade that was jam-packed with action films but also had an abundance of fantasy films still around. This new technology opened up possibilities for narrative never before seen and they were used, for example, a journey inside a human body in Innerspace. The kind of film that was in demand with the American public was also the kind of film that was well-suited to the new special effects technology.

Before the apathetic generation-x-ridden 90s when films of social dementia disguised as poetry like American Beauty would run amuck, the 80s was a decade riddled with myth and fantasy, here’s a sample: The Empire Strikes Back, Return of the Jedi, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, The Neverending Story, Legend, Dark Crystal, Back to the Future, Flight of the Navigator and so on. Escapism being a large part of the cinematic formula coupled with the youthful audience allowed for these advances and this type of storytelling which is only recently beginning to creep back into being.

The shift away from fantastical storytelling that occurred in the mid-90s and lasted until about 1999 in a way has impeded the progress of CGI. While in some films it blends in perfectly and is breathtaking in others it sticks out like a sore thumb. Sure, there are films and studios that will be cheap, but had there been more constant works the floor of marginally acceptable CGI would’ve risen. The man who is always breaking the glass ceiling of CGI excellence is George Lucas, and he says he tries to push other directors with every film he does, hopefully people will follow suit.

The computer generated image is one of the few things from the 80s which was expanded upon in the 90s. The technology has some very practical uses such as digital stunts and extras. With this technology the director’s vision can more easily be realized where as if something doesn’t exist the way he sees it can be created. This is one of the 80s lasting legacies. When we’re looking back upon this decade we, of course, can’t forget some of the films that came out of the decade, but we must also remember that filmmaking was forever changed in this decade because ‘Special Effects’ became a term that we could apply to almost every film. A new cinematic tool was beginning to be fully realized and is still being perfected to this very day.

 Footnote and Work Cited:

1. The Empire Strikes Back won an Academy Award for Special Achievement in Special Effects. The following year it was a category at the awards, Raiders of the Lost Ark and Drangonslayer were nominated.


2. Star Wars: Episode II- Attack of the Clones Dir. George Lucas. Feat. Hayden Christiansen, Ewan Macgregor, Natalie Portman, Christopher Lee. 2002, 20th Century Fox. DVD extra features.