Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
Wednesday, April 1, 2009
Their first album was made in 20 minutes. The second took even longer.
For April Fool's Day this year I picked a pair of fake television documentaries that were made a couple decades apart. One was an obvious parody and thus was never confused for the genuine article, but the other was so slyly made (and was about a much more obscure subject) that it managed to fool quite a lot of people. See if you can guess which one is which.
First shown in March of 1978, The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash was the brainchild of Eric Idle and came about because of his association with Saturday Night Live in the late '70s. When Lorne Michaels offered him the chance to write, co-direct (with SNL's in-house filmmaker Gary Weis) and star in his own TV special, Idle chose to expand on a sketch from his post-Monty Python TV series Rutland Weekend Television about the Rutles, a.k.a. the "Pre-Fab Four." As a fan of the Beatles, Monty Python and early SNL, The Rutles was right up my alley from the moment I learned of its existence and it didn't disappoint when I got to see it. I put that down to a number of factors, chief among them Idle's script, which skewers documentary conventions as much as its intended subject. Then there are the songs by Neil Innes (who plays the Lennonesque Ron Nasty to Idle's Dirk McQuickly), which go beyond being simply pastiches of Beatles songs and, in many cases, manage to stand on their own quite well.
Joining Idle and Innes as the Rutles are John Halsey (as drummer Barry Wom) and Rikki Fataar (as Stig O'Hara, "the quiet one"), who could convincingly mime the songs because they actually played on the recordings. And backing them up are a quorum of the Not Ready for Prime-Time Players (Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Bill Murray and Gilda Radner), Idle's fellow Python Michael Palin along with able members of the Python rep company Terence Bayler and Gwen Taylor, and rock luminaries Mick Jagger and Paul Simon (as themselves), Ron Wood (as a Hell's Angel), Bianca Jagger (as Dirk's socialite wife) and a ringer in the form of George Harrison (who's nearly unrecognizable as an interviewer whose microphone gets stolen in mid-interview). The result is about as perfect a time capsule as you can imagine, so I was shocked -- and stunned -- when Idle decided to sully it 24 years later by making the wholly unnecessary sequel The Rutles 2: Can't Buy Me Lunch. Very stunned.
A similar thing could be said of the viewing audience that hailed Peter Jackson and Costa Botes's Forgotten Silver when it first aired on New Zealand television in 1995 and was angered when it was revealed to be a hoax. (I saw it a couple years later at the Philadelphia Film Festival, by which time its reputation as an ingenious fake had preceded it.) Written and directed by Jackson and Botes, it purports to tell the story of silent film pioneer Colin McKenzie, who started out at the turn of the century and made breakthrough after breakthrough -- sometimes decades before his contemporaries -- but it wasn't until his lost films were "rediscovered" years later that this came to light.
Jackson and Botes appear as themselves as they lead an expedition in search of the massive outdoor set of McKenzie's unfinished Biblical epic Salome, and they're aided and abetted by talking-head interviews with the likes of Sam Neill, Leonard Maltin and Harvey Weinstein, who all extol McKenzie's talents behind the camera and argue for his inclusion in the pantheon of cinematic innovators. (Weinstein also proves that he has a sense of humor about himself since he cheerfully talks about cutting an hour out of McKenzie's reconstructed Salome.) Hoax or no hoax, this is a loving salute to the early days of cinema and the (sometimes fictional) individuals who were driven to make their mark on the fledgling medium.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
What are you fools watching?
I've got one more piece of April Fool's business to take care of. Adult Swim always pulls some sort of prank on April 1 -- one year they added fart noises and mustaches to their anime lineup, another year they showed the Aqua Teen movie very tiny in the corner of the screen while their regular programming aired -- so I always make sure I'm taping to capture whatever it is they do. This year they broadcast writer/director Tommy Wiseau's bizarre 2003 cult film The Room, which I didn't know much about before the Onion AV Club added it to their New Cult Canon last week, but I knew it was something I wanted to see.
A odd bird of a black comedy -- largely because it's doubtful much of the comedy was actually intended by the filmmakers -- it tells the story of a loving, altogether too-trusting banker with David Byrne hair (played by Wiseau, naturally) whose sociopath of a fiancée (Juliette Danielle) has fallen out of love with him and cheats on him less than a month before their wedding, which naturally drives Wiseau to blow his brains out. Now, you'd think a story that simple would be fodder for a 15 or 20-minute short, but Wiseau managed to drag it out to 99 minutes (which Adult Swim stretched a further half hour with commercials). How does he do this? Well, by having his characters talk about their situation endlessly, stating their positions and then restating them, then re-restating them for good measure. Lather, rinse, repeat.
Early on Danielle talks to her busybody of a mother (Carolyn Minnott), who tells her to go for the stability of marriage, but Danielle would rather bone Wiseau's clueless best friend (Greg Sestero), who somehow needs a diagram when she invites him over to her apartment in the middle of the afternoon and starts coming on to him. (I lost track of how many times he asked, "What are you doing?" over the course of the film.) Sestero immediately wants to end the affair, but Danielle keeps at him, all the while going through the motions of organizing Wiseau's surprise birthday party, where everything naturally comes to a head. In the interim the characters put up with the frequent intrusions of the orphaned student (Philip Haldiman) Wiseau is putting through college (and putting up in their building), as well as an amorous couple (Robyn Paris and Mike Holmes) who use the apartment for their chocolaty trysts. As Danielle's mother aptly puts it, "How many people come in and out of this apartment every day? This is worse than Grand Central Station."
No discussion of The Room would be complete without a rundown of some of the more inane lines of dialogue. Here are some samples:
"You shouldn't have any secrets from me. I'm your future husband."
Admittedly, you have to hear how that last one is delivered to really find it funny, but trust me, it is.
"I gotta go see Michelle in a little bit to make out with her."
"You don't understand anything, man. Leave your stupid comments in your pocket."
"It's not over, everyone betray me. I'm fed up with this world."
"Get out, get out, get out of my life!"
Another thing that was hysterically funny about the film -- at least the way it was shown on Adult Swim -- was the network's creative use of black boxes during the frequent sex scenes. There were even times when the black box expanded to cover most of the screen, leaving only a tiny sliver of picture on the side or (at one point) a bit in the corner. I don't think I've laughed so hard at such blatant censorship since the infamous red box scene in Todd Solondz's Storytelling. At some point I may consider renting the unedited version of the movie from Plan 9, but somehow I doubt those scenes will tickle my funny bone in quite the same way.
What is it kids like about metal?
Its release on DVD may still be held up in legal limbo, but IFC had The Decline of Western Civilization Part II: The Metal Years on this afternoon, so I spent the 93 minutes required to become immersed in the Los Angeles metal scene, circa 1988. Directed by Penelope Spheeris, who was an accomplished documentarian before the success of Wayne's World turned her into the kind of filmmaker who got offered things like The Beverly Hillbillies and The Little Rascals, The Decline II came seven years after the original Decline of Western Civilization, which had covered the punk scene at the beginning of the decade. For the follow-up, Spheeris trained her cameras on established stars like Steven Tyler and Joe Perry of Aerosmith, Alice Cooper, Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley of Kiss, Lemmy of Motorhead, Ozzy Osbourne, and the members of Poison, and contrasted them with profiles of (and performances by) up-and-coming bands still struggling to make it. Between the lot of them, Spheeris covers topics like promotion, makeup, hair, groupies, sex, drugs and alcoholism, painting a not very bright picture of the life at either end of the spectrum. For every Paul Stanley, who's shown lying in bed with half a dozen scantily-clad women, there's an Ozzy Osbourne struggling his way through making breakfast or a Chris Holmes (of W.A.S.P.) floating in a pool, pouring bottles of booze down his throat while his mother looks on. Hardly a ringing endorsement of the lifestyle.
Friday, April 3, 2009
When my vengeance is over, can I return to being Oh Dae-su?
At first, the only thing I knew about Chan-wook Park's Oldboy was that it was the film Quentin Tarantino campaigned to give the Golden Palm the year he was president of the jury at Cannes, but he was outvoted and it went to Fahrenheit 9/11 instead. (Oldboy had to make do with the Grand Prize, which is no small consolation.) Later on I learned that Oldboy was the middle film in Park's "Vengeance Trilogy," which made me think it might be worth seeking out Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance first. Well, I've had a few years to do just that, but the Sundance Channel threw a wrench into my plan by airing Oldboy early this morning, so I decided that -- as with the Decline films -- it wouldn't hurt to see these out of order, either.
Co-written and directed by Park, and based on a popular Japanese manga, the 2003 film stars Min-sik Choi as a seemingly harmless man who is kidnapped and held captive for 15 years (during which time he is framed for his wife's murder) and, when he's mysteriously released, methodically tracks down the people responsible for his incarceration so he can exact his revenge. The trouble is his tormentor (Ji-tae Yu) isn't through with him yet, especially after Choi falls into a rather convenient relationship with sushi chef Hye-jeong Kang. As it turns out, Yu has a very personal reason for wanting to destroy Choi's life and he's rich enough -- and clever enough -- to make it happen in such a way that it's not only inevitable, but also vaguely poetic. My only real regret about waiting so long to see this is that I already knew about one of its big reveals (which I won't divulge here), but Oldboy isn't the kind of story that relies on its twists to be effective. It's just a damn good film, period.
Saturday, April 4, 2009
You know, I've heard a rumor that there's an army of walking dead on this island.
Only have time for the one "Chilling Classic" today, which is just as well because Del Tenney's I Eat Your Skin is crappy enough for two. Written, produced and directed by Tenney (who also made the MST3K favorite The Horror of Party Beach and The Curse of the Living Corpse, which just so happened to be Roy Scheider's film debut), the film was originally released in 1964 as Zombies, but it wasn't given its more common title until it was re-released in 1971 on a double bill with I Drink Your Blood. Ah, the golden age of the drive-in... (So why isn't this on the "Drive-In Movie Classics" set? You tell me.)
Anyway, I Eat Your Skin (which, it must be said, is about voodoo zombies, so there isn't any actual skin-eating involved) opens with a voodoo ceremony where we watch a bikini-clad girl gyrating for several minutes, thus satisfying most of the young males in the audience right off the bat. Then we're off to Miami Beach, where playboy writer William Joyce is poolside, spinning a seductive tale for several young ladies when his agent (Dan Stapleton) whisks him away to an uncharted island to get material for his next (apparently overdue) novel. Of course, why Stapleton would bring his floozy wife (Betty Hyatt Linton) and she would bring her two poodles along is beyond me, but I guess Tenney decided his film needed more dead weight.
Curiously enough, the plane they charter barely has enough fuel for a one-way trip, which doesn't seem like good planning to me, so after an emergency beach landing (which Joyce insists on doing himself because that's the sort of thing movie heroes do), Joyce goes exploring by himself. Naturally one of the first things he sees is a girl skinny dipping, but she is scared off by something lurking in the jungle. Investigating further, Joyce discovers that the natives of the island speak Spanish and is attacked by a machete-wielding zombie, who beheads the fisherman he had conscripted as a guide. Before the zombie can do the same to Joyce, he is rescued by Walter Coy, the overseer of the island's plantation and their host for the duration of their stay.
In addition to housing visiting writers, agents and floozies, Coy also has a scientist in residence (Robert Stanton), who's working on a snake venom-based cancer cure, and the scientist's nubile young daughter (Heather Hewitt), because there has to be somebody for Joyce to fall madly in love with. Once all of the characters are in play, it's only a matter of time before they get mixed-up with the voodoo-practicing natives (who are led by a mysterious figure who hides his identity behind a beaded mask, top hat and sunglasses -- no points for guessing who he is ahead of time). And it's only a matter of time before we see some zombie transformations, which mostly involve the application of spackle to actors' faces and a number of dissolves. Ooh, scary.
Sometimes you gotta be a little bit ruthless.
Watching Oldboy last night put me in mind of Stuart Gordon's King of the Ants, which was also made in 2003 and is also about a man who is abducted by criminals and subjected to physical and mental torture until he is able to escape and wreak his vengeance. The difference is in this film our "hero" isn't quite so blameless. In fact, even before push comes to shove he proves to be quite the amoral type, agreeing to kill a man as long as the price is right. The trouble only starts when the job is done and he expects to get paid (although it must be said that he does agonize over it both before and after the fact).
Written by Charlie Higson, based on his own novel, the film follows rudderless twentysomething Chris McKenna as he winds up in the orbit of crooked builder Daniel Baldwin, who hires him to follow a city hall accountant (an uncredited Ron Livingston) who is looking into his crooked business dealings. When McKenna finds out that Livingston is getting ready to go to the media, Baldwin orders the hit, which McKenna carries out, albeit with some reservations. For one thing, he's fantasized about Livingston's wife (Kari Wuhrer), which doesn't make the job any easier. And in spite of the promised payday, taking another man's life is no small thing, but once the deed is done he expects to get what's coming to him.
It's at that point that Baldwin sics his associates on McKenna, starting with George Wendt, who is a lot more intimidating than you would imagine, but when McKenna won't disappear, Baldwin has Wendt and his two cronies (Vernon Wells and Lionel Mark Smith) take him out to the desert where they work him over with a golf club to try to turn him into a vegetable. It's a brutal process and Gordon doesn't shy away from the details, nor does he skimp on the extreme imagery in McKenna's hallucinations. (Another detail this film shares with Oldboy is that both include hallucinations about ants.) Little wonder this went from the festival circuit (I saw it in the Philadelphia International Film Festival) straight to home video. Like a lot of Gordon's work, it was simply too uncompromising to get a general release, but I know from experience that it can work like gangbusters -- with the right audience, that is.
Monday, April 6, 2009
You're never serious except when it comes to stealing emeralds.
About a decade after Rififi established him in Europe, producer/director Jules Dassin returned to the caper genre that had served him so well with 1964's Topkapi, which also reunited him with his soon-to-be wife Melina Mercouri, who plays an international jewel thief with a weakness for priceless emeralds. There are four of them on the diamond-encrusted dagger she plans to steal from a Turkish museum with the help of Swiss mastermind Maximilian Schell, so that means the job is four times as difficult. Good thing they have a top gadgets man (Robert Morley), a German strongman (Jess Hahn) and Giulio the Human Fly (Gilles Ségal) on their crew, with only a slight hiccup caused by the addition of hapless Brit Peter Ustinov (who won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role). It seems Ustinov was only hired to smuggle some weapons across the border (without his knowledge, of course), but when the Turkish police catch him they force him to act as their informant, believing they've stumbled across a terrorist cell. This, needless to say, complicates things greatly.
This film may have been Dassin's last major international success, but it had a far-reaching impact. The heist sequence is right up there with the best in the genre and it inspired similar ones in The Great Muppet Caper and Mission: Impossible. Furthermore, the film was said to the inspiration for the original Mission: Impossible series (after all, Mercouri certainly does give Schell a nigh-impossible mission to crack). Of Dassin's post-Topkapi work, only 1966's 10:30 P.M. Summer (again starring Mercouri) is readily available on DVD, so I'll probably check it out at some point for completeness's sake, but I'm in no hurry.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
Hope can be a horrible thing.
One of the casualties of the need to keep Watchmen down to a reasonable length (at least in its theatrical incarnation) was Tales of the Black Freighter, a pirate comic book that, in the book, acts as a counterpoint to the main story. I'm not sure how Zack Snyder plans on incorporating it into his promised director's cut, but as a standalone short it works reasonably well. Meticulously animated, it brings to life some of Watchmen's most gruesome imagery and gives a voice (provided by Gerard Butler, star of Snyder's 300) to its most fatalistic narrator. (It also brings to mind the "B-17" segment from Heavy Metal, which is understandable considering all the rotting corpses on display.) One can argue with some of the grisly details Snyder and co-writer Alex Tse (who also co-wrote the Watchmen film) added to Alan Moore's original, but as long as they serve the story I have no beef with them.
Wednesday, April 8, 2009
All young boys should have a little mischief in them.
Yasujiro Ozu's best-known silent film is most likely 1932's I Was Born, But... (which he remade in 1959 as Good Morning). It's the deceptively simple story of a salaryman (Tatsuo Saito) who moves his family to a new town when he gets a new job and how his two sons (Tomio Aoki and Hideo Sugawara) cope with the bullies at their new school. Ozu has never sentimentalized childhood, so the kids are decidedly not whitewashed. In fact, he presents them in all their crotch-scratching, public-urinating, school-skipping, cigarette-smoking, sparrow's egg-sucking glory. Beyond the boys' confrontations with their classmates, though, there isn't much of a plot to the film until they are mortified by their father's comic antics in his boss's (Takeshi Sakamoto) home movies. After that he doesn't seem so big and important to them -- but he can still beat the living tar out of them when they act up, leaving it up to their mother (Mitsuko Yoshikawa) to try to smooth things over with some rice balls. Surprisingly, thst does the trick.
Thursday, April 9, 2009
What is this story about a man turning into a wolf?
The middle of the day may seem like an odd time to watch a horror film -- even a classic such as 1941's The Wolf Man -- but with this month's full moon peaking today at 2:56 p.m. it just seemed natural to me. It's been a few months since I started Universal's werewolf series (with 1935's Werewolf of London), but I wanted to wait to continue it because the remake was originally set to be the released on April 3 -- that is, until Universal pushed it back to November 6. I'm still not sure why they chose to do that, but as long as I eventually get to see Benicio Del Toro wolf out on the big screen, I can be patient. In the meantime, Lon Chaney Jr. will more than make do.
For the benefit of audiences who weren't up on their werewolf lore, The Wolf Man opens with a helpful encyclopedia entry on lycanthropy (or "werewolfism") before establishing the "backwards" old-world locale where such superstitions were still whispered about. Chaney is Larry Talbot, the prodigal son and heir to Talbot Castle who has been away in America for 18 years and only returns after his older brother has been killed in a hunting accident. Chaney's father (Claude Rains), a noted astronomer with a rigidly scientific mind, encourages him to get to know the people of the town, but the only one Chaney wants to make time with is antique shop proprietor Evelyn Ankers, who just so happens to be engaged to Rains's pipe-smoking gamekeeper (Patric Knowles). That doesn't prevent him from pressing his suit with Ankers and talking her into accompanying him to visit the gypsies who have rolled into town to tell people's fortunes.
That's when they meet Bela (Bela Lugosi), the afflicted son of old gypsy woman Maria Ouspenskaya, who sees tragedy looming but has no way of preventing it. In short order, Chaney kills Lugosi while he's in wolf form, but Chaney is bitten in the process and becomes the prime suspect when Lugosi's body (returned to human form and also with clothing on, but no shoes) is discovered along with Chaney's recently purchased wolf-headed walking stick. The curious thing about the murder investigation is the way the chief constable (Ralph Bellamy, another pipe smoker) actually leaves the murder weapon behind when he goes to question Chaney. Bellamy is also saddled with an assistant named Twiddle (Forrester Harvey), who provides the excruciating comic relief. One can only assume the character was foisted on producer/director George Waggner and writer Curt Siodmak. After all, the Universal horror films of the '30s had their over-the-top characters -- why not this one, too?
Anyway, it takes a while for Chaney to come to terms with what he's become, reconciling his supernatural plight with his rational mind. (He also has to figure out how he can sit down in a chair in an undershirt, transform into the wolf man, and then be wearing a dark long-sleeved shirt without having had time to put one on -- or the dexterity necessary to do up the buttons.) And he isn't helped much by his skeptical father, who dismisses lycanthropy as "a variety of schizophrenia" and refuses to send Chaney away despite his doctor's recommendation. The sad thing is Rains has to lose both of his sons before he is able to accept that there are some things that can't be explained away by science and reason. The look of devastation on his face at the end of the film tells the whole story.
There are nights when it is good not to sleep next to a place where the dead are laid.
On its last day, the Cinemat was selling its TV DVDs for $4 a disc, so I picked up a few Masters of Horror episodes, including Haeckel's Tale, which was adapted from the Clive Barker short story by series creator Mick Garris. Originally intended for George A. Romero, it was ultimately helmed by John McNaughton of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer fame, who played up the show's trademark mix of horror and sexuality. At first glance, though, it plays like a folk tale, with a bereaved gentleman (Steve Bacic) beseeching a retired necromancer (Micki Maunsell) to bring his wife back from the dead. Seeking to dissuade him, she instead tells him the tale of uppity medical student Ernst Haeckel (Derek Cecil), who was eager to recreate Dr. Frankenstein's experiments with reanimation, but unable to bring them to fruition. (His run-in with one of his teachers at the university reminded me of the first tete-a-tete between Herbert West and Dr. Hill in Re-Animator -- another clear antecedent.)
The son of a well-respected doctor who is close to death (hence his urgency), Haeckel eventually seeks out a necromancer of his own, despite his skepticism. When he sees the Great Montesquino (Jon Polito) in action, though, he dismisses the man as a charlatan, little realizing their paths would cross again. When they do it is in connection with an old farmer (Tom McBeath) and his comely young wife (Leela Savasta), whose appetites are such that they cannot be sated by mortal men. Suffice it to say, all paths leads to a graveyard called the Necropolis, where Haeckel confronts the necromancer and is confronted by the sight of another word beginning with the prefix necro-. Never let it be said that Masters of Horror ever let a taboo go unturned.
Friday, April 10, 2009
He's such a nice guy. It's a shame it has to happen to him.
One of the perks of working at Tower Records was that we got to play movies in the video room and we could pretty much pick whatever we wanted. We generally stuck with current releases, but the video manager always mixed in some offbeat titles, with an emphasis on kung fu flicks and obscure horror and science fiction features. One that I enjoyed playing but never got to see all the way through was 1958's I Married a Monster from Outer Space, which made it onto my mental "to-see" list even before I read about it in Danny Peary's first Cult Movies book. Now that I've seen it from beginning to end, I can see why it became a cult item in the first place.
Produced and directed by Gene Fowler Jr., who had made his feature debut with the similarly declarative I Was a Teenage Werewolf the year before and would go on to make the MST3K favorite The Rebel Set the year after, I Married a Monster from Outer Space stars Tom Tryon as the groom who is replaced by an alien on the eve of his wedding and Gloria Talbott as the young bride who can't understand why the man she's married to isn't the one she fell in love with. In a lot of ways it plays like a low-key variation on Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which writer Louis Vittes must have had in mind while concocting his screenplay, but this film gives the intruders time to grow into their human bodies and even tap into their emotions and desires. Strongest of all is the desire to reproduce (at one point we see one of the aliens lingering in front of a store display of baby dolls), which Talbott pushes for but Tryon resists until his race is able to perfect the means of propagating itself.
For the most part Fowler doesn't let us see much of his monsters, which is a shame because they have an intriguing, otherworldly look to them. We do learn a lot about their strengths and weaknesses while they're in their human forms, though. Not only can they see in the dark, but they have super strength and they're invulnerable to bullets and most physical attacks. On the other hand, dogs and cats don't like them much, they're allergic to alcohol, oxygen is lethal to them and their actual physical form is revealed during lighting storms. Otherwise, they look and act just like human beings, which is why Talbott doesn't figure out what's going on until she follows Tryon back to his spaceship, whereupon he vacates his human shell (a neat visual effect) before boarding. Naturally after that she's a lot less anxious to hop into bed with him and start popping out babies.
Saturday, April 11, 2009
You're all our guests, and we gonna show you some southern hospitality!
As much as I've read over the years about the works of Herschell Gordon Lewis (which include such appetizing titles as Blood Feast, The Wizard of Gore and The Gore Gore Girls), I've never once been compelled to watch them -- largely because of what I've read about them. That all changed this morning when Turner Classic Movies aired 1964's Two Thousand Maniacs! (along with the previous year's Blood Feast) on TCM Underground. Now, while I continue to draw the line at Blood Feast (I've seen the trailer, which was more than enough for me), I decided to give Two Thousand Maniacs! a shot when I learned that Evan Dorkin -- one of my favorite comic book writers/artists -- had been tapped by the network to do a prologue for the film as part of TCM Underground's Lost Scenes feature. Unsurprisingly, I got more enjoyment out of Dorkin's four-page comic than I did out of Lewis's 84-minute film, but I had to see both to be sure.
Written, directed and photographed by Lewis, Two Thousand Maniacs! takes what should have been a surefire premise -- a backwoods Georgia town celebrating its centennial by waylaying northerners with crude detour signs and then killing them off one by one as a way of getting revenge for what some rogue Union soldiers did to its townspeople at the end of the Civil War -- and squanders it with lousy writing, incompetent direction and inept photography (there are times when it seems like Lewis couldn't frame a shot to save his life). This is, of course, not to forget the horrendous acting (some of it wooden, most of it completely over-the-top) and iffy sound, which means you sometimes have to strain to make out the awful dialogue. Herschell Gordon Lewis is the kind of filmmaker who makes Roger Corman look like a polished professional.
That said, the film isn't a total waste of time (it is considered by many -- including Lewis himself -- to be his best work) and there are moments that manage to tap into the lingering resentment some Southerners have for their Yankee counterparts. I have to wonder how much of that was carried over to the 2005 sequel/remake 2001 Maniacs, which starred Robert Englund. I doubt I'll ever be curious enough to find out, though.
Do you want to tell me what's wrong with everybody in this town?
Fifteen years after their last collaboration, 1986's From Beyond, director Stuart Gordon, screenwriter Dennis Paoli and producer Brian Yuzna again joined forces to bring one of H.P. Lovecraft's stories to the screen. Actually they brought two since 2001's Dagon contains elements of both "Dagon" and "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," which is the story Gordon originally wanted to do as the follow-up to Re-Animator. By the time Dagon was ready to go before the cameras, though, the setting had been changed from New England to the coast of Spain (because that was where they were able to get funding) and Jeffrey Combs had grown too old to play the lead, so they cast unknown Ezra Godden (who later took the lead in Gordon's first Masters of Horror episode Dreams in the Witch-House, another Lovecraft adaptation).
Godden plays a nebbishy dot-com millionaire (and Miskatonic University alumnus) vacationing with girlfriend Raquel Meroņo when a storm blows up suddenly and dashes their host's yacht on some rocks. Godden and Meroño take a raft to the mainland where they try to get help -- and where she proves to be much more capable than he is -- but it isn't long before they get separated and Godden finds himself being relentlessly pursued by the townspeople, who progressively show themselves to be decidedly less than human. He doesn't learn all of the town's deep, dark secrets until he runs into town drunk Francisco Rabal, who calls himself the "last man in Imboca" and recalls in flashback form the time when the town turned away from the Christian church and started worshiping Dagon in order to better reap the bounty of the sea, giving up their humanity in the process. Unfortunately for Godden and Meroño, the followers of Dagon are a bloodthirsty cult that believes in human sacrifice -- and forcing their female captives to breed with the monstrous sea god. The filmmakers tactfully keeps that action off-screen, but the aftermath is no less disturbing. And they save the most astonishing revelation for last, as Godden learns how impossible it is to avoid one's destiny. How very Lovecraftian.
Monday, April 13, 2009
It's a funtastic time!
It's been out for a couple weeks, so I decided to catch Greg Mottola's Adventureland before the summer movie season has a chance to get started. I saw Mottola's first feature The Daytrippers when it came out in 1997 and enjoyed it very much, so I was very glad he chose to follow the phenomenally successful Superbad with a more personal film. Basing the script on his experiences working at the real Adventureland on Long Island, Motolla transplanted the titular run-down theme park to Pittsburgh, where recent college graduate Jesse Eisenberg finds himself stuck when money problems force his parents to cancel his summer trip to Europe. He tries to find a job somewhere -- anywhere -- else, but his lack of skills and work experience leaves him with few options, especially if he wants to make enough money to go to grad school in New York in the fall.
To his chagrin, Eisenberg gets assigned to work the games (as opposed to the rides, which is apparently the tonier gig) and in short order he falls in with pipe-smoking intellectual Martin Starr (who shows him how all of the carnival games are rigged) and slumming rich girl Kristen Stewart (who I'm told was in some obscure little movie last year called Twilight -- can someone clue me in to what that's all about?). Naturally it isn't long before he falls hard for Stewart, but unbeknownst to him -- and everybody else -- she's having a clandestine affair with the park's married maintenance guy (Ryan Reynolds), which makes him the last person Eisenberg should be confiding in about his relationship woes. Then again, people seem to gravitate to Eisenberg -- even hot girl Margarita Levieva favors him with her attention -- but that's probably because he's everybody's weed connection thanks to a stash his college roommate gifted him with.
The pot smoking is treated very casually in the film, which is only right because that's how the characters treat it. It's just one of the things that makes working at Adventureland bearable. Another thing Motolla nails is how laissez-faire the employees are about their jobs -- with the notable exception of park manager Bill Hader, who is constantly being undercut by his assistant/wife (Kristen Wiig). Motolla also gets a lot of mileage out of the '80s hits on the soundtrack (including the ubiquitous "Rock Me Amadeus"), which help to establish the film's time period (as does a brief shot of Ronald Reagan making a speech on TV). Unlike some films that get set in the '80s for seemingly no reason, Adventureland perfectly captures an era when things weren't so innocent or straightforward as they looked on the surface. Eisenberg probably didn't need to go work at a second-rate theme park to learn that, but he's no worse off for doing so.
Tuesday, April 14, 2009
Everyone yearns for love. Love sets our thoughts in flight.
The last title in Eclipse's Silent Ozu set is 1933's Passing Fancy, which stars Takeshi Sakamoto (who had previously played the older employee who got fired in Tokyo Chorus and the boss in I Was Born, But...) as a single father trying to raise a willful son (Tomio Aoki) on a factory worker's salary. He loses all interest in work, though, when he becomes infatuated with a pretty young woman (Nobuko Fushimi) who, to his visible dismay, tells him she thinks of him as an uncle. To top it off, the woman's employer (Chouko Iida) asks Sakamoto to find a suitable husband for her, namely his neighbor and coworker (Den Obinata). Then his attempt at being a better father backfires when his son overdoses on sweets with the money he was given and winds up needing to see a doctor -- an expensive proposition, indeed. It's no wonder Sakamoto starts to think the kid would be better off without him around.
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
If you don't use the spirit for jujitsu, it's wasted.
After working in the Japanese film industry for a little over half a decade as an assistant director, Akira Kurosawa was given the chance to direct his own feature with 1943's Sanshiro Sugata, for which he wrote the screenplay based on Tsuneo Tomita's novel. Set in 1882, the film depicts the conflict between the practitioners of traditional jujitsu wrestling and the more modern judo, as taught by master Denjiro Okochi, who takes the title character -- a haughty student played by Susumu Fujita -- under his wing. Fujita is hotheaded at first and needs to learn discipline, but he eventually proves to be a strong and formidable fighter -- that is, until he falls for the daughter (Yukiko Todoroki) of his opponent in an upcoming match. The father, incidentally, is played by Takashi Shimura, who completely nails the first of 22 roles he would play for Kurosawa over the next four decades.
Shimura isn't Fujita's main rival, though. That distinction belongs to the bowler hat-wearing Ryunosuke Tsukigata, who goes so far as to challenge him to a duel to the death on a blustery December day. Like all of the fight scenes in the film, it is very fluid and exciting, and the outdoor setting makes it all the more distinctive. At the end of the day, though, Fujita stands triumphant and not long after he takes leave of Todoroki, promising to be back soon. He kept his promise two years later with 1945's Sanshiro Sugata Part Two, which Kurosawa wrote and directed at the behest of the government, which saw the film as a possible morale booster in the waning months of the war.
Set in 1887, Part Two opens with a scene of Fujita confronting -- and easily besting -- a brutish American sailor who was beating up a hapless rickshaw man. Then, in short order, Fujita is introduced to American boxing (and finds the sport and its bloodthirsty spectators most distasteful) as well as two very dangerous proponents of karate played by Tsukigata (as the younger brother of his character from the first film) and crazy-haired loose cannon Akitake Kono. Following the template of the first part, this film also ends with a duel to the death, only this one takes place on a snowy hillside for variety's sake. And the denouement offers a hint that Fujita may have achieved the inner peace he has long sought. After all he's been through in both films, I'd say he's earned it.
Thursday, April 16, 2009
In the desert, a man forgets he even has a name.
I remember well when Lavinia Currier's Passion in the Desert came to theaters in the summer of 1998. It had a bizarre enough premise to be memorable -- a soldier gets lost in the desert and falls in love with a leopard -- but wasn't intriguing enough to get me to buy a ticket. (Plus, the reviews were middling at best.) Now it has shown up on IFC a few times since I got digital cable, so I decided to give a shot this afternoon. I figured if it turned out to be risible (and I had every reason to believe it would be), it was only 90 minutes out of my life.
Written and directed by Currier, based on a novella by Balzac, the film follows a French soldier (Ben Daniels) who is escorting an artist (Buñuel regular Michel Piccoli) through Egypt during Napoleon's North African campaign in 1798. After the battalion they're with is ambushed by Bedouins, Daniels and Piccoli get separated from them during a sandstorm and then from each other after they run out of food and water and Piccoli is unable to go on. (It's quite telling that he commits suicide at the same moment Daniels puts his horse out of its misery.) In desperation Daniels takes refuge in a cave, which he finds out is occupied by a she-leopard, but to his surprise the animal does not attack him. Instead it leads him to its watering hole and even shares one of its kills with him. And so they may have lived happily ever after, if not for the male leopard that comes a-courtin'.
In looking back over the reviews this got, I can understand why I gave it a miss the first time around. (As Roger Ebert put it, "I didn't believe it on a literal level and couldn't get it to work on any other.") Now that I've seen it for myself, I can say it is a profoundly strange and beautifully photographed film that is almost entirely lacking in profundity. I can also see it working on a double bill with Gerry, although I couldn't tell you which film to watch first. I guess that all depends on whether you like your implied bestiality front- or back-loaded.
Is it obscene or is it science?
I've been pretty fortunate so far with the episodes of Masters of Horror that I've chosen to add to my personal collection. It's probably helped that I've stuck with the ones by reliable genre vets like Stuart Gordon, John Carpenter, John Landis and Joe Dante. So why is it that my first real dud was brought to the small screen by Tobe Hooper, whose Dance of the Dead is a headache-inducing nightmare? I doubt it's the fault of the source material (a short story by Richard Matheson, adapted by his son, Richard Christian Matheson), so I have little choice but to lay the blame at Hooper's (and quite possibly the junior Matheson's) feet. What else can one do when one is confronted by what appears to be a spastic, low-budget version of a Duran Duran music video?
At any rate, the story takes place in a dystopian future (World War III has come and gone) where what is left of civilization is fragmented and set to the music of Billy Corgan. The hooliganism hasn't reached the level of, say, the Mad Max movies, but one of the first things we see is a couple of punks stealing blood from an elderly couple. We're then introduced to sheltered 17-year-old Jessica Lowndes, who's eager to see more of the world than her overprotective mother allows her. Enter soulful blood thief Jonathan Tucker, who takes her on an eye-opening trip to the Doom Room, an underground cabaret where the decadent M.C. (Robert Englund) hosts the most depraved floor show imaginable -- at least, that's what he advertises. When we finally get to see the show it's more than a little anticlimactic, as is the predictable "twist" ending, which I could spoil, but I just don't feel up to it. The best I can hope for is that Hooper's follow-up, The Damned Thing, is an improvement. I really can't see it being worse.
Friday, April 17, 2009
They have overrun us, you know. We're in the minority now.
Until Land of the Dead came along in 2005, it seemed like 1985's Day of the Dead was going to be George A. Romero's final word on the genre he jump-started with Night of the Living Dead in 1968. I'm glad it wasn't, though, because while Day is an impressive effort on a technical level, Romero doesn't exactly make it easy to like any of the characters. Maybe it was the result of having to scale back his ambitions (Romero's early drafts were much more expansive than what wound up on the screen), but by setting the bulk of the film in a claustrophobic underground complex and focusing on the simmering tensions between a group of scientists working on the zombie problem and the increasingly resentful soldiers who are tired of putting themselves in harm's way, he leaves us with few people to root for.
The character we spend the most time with is Lori Cardille's biologist, who is not only the only female (well, the only living one) in the complex, but she's often the sole voice of reason, bridging the ever-widening gap between unstable army captain Joe Pilato (who's just recently taken charge after the death of the previous commanding officer) and loopy research scientist Richard Liberty, who isn't called Frankenstein for nothing. His greatest success, it seems, has been with conditioning a zombie he's nicknamed Bub (Howard Sherman), who has the most personality of any creature in the entire series, but Pilato is unimpressed. The film also features Terry Alexander as the laid-back helicopter pilot who talks about finding a deserted island somewhere, Jarlath Conroy as the alcoholic radio operator who would like to join him and John Amplas as the frustrated scientist whose complaints about their substandard working conditions fall on deaf ears.
The real stars of the film, though, are the zombies created by Tom Savini, who turns in his most impressive -- and nauseating -- makeup effects yet. And while Day may lack Dawn's pointed social satire, when you see that the zombie horde at the end contains such figures as a birthday clown, a bride in a wedding dress and a ballerina (just to name a few), you can't help but laugh at their absurdity. Romero also includes a clever reference to Dawn when one of the characters reports that "all of the shopping malls are closed." It's probably just as well since an unrated film like Day of the Dead couldn't play at one anyway.
Saturday, April 18, 2009
Ever since those two came here, there's been nothing but death and sorrow.
After the briefest of hiatuses, today I watched a pair of "Chilling Classics" featuring the female descendants of Baron Frankenstein, both of whom intend to follow in their forebear's footsteps in their own ways. In the first, 1966's Jesse James Meets Frankenstein's Daughter, Maria Frankenstein (Narda Onyx, who is actually playing his granddaughter) has left Vienna and set up shop in the American Southwest for the bountiful electrical storms. Using her grandfather's artificial brains, Maria has been experimenting on the locals, strapping an Everlasting Gobstopper helmet onto their heads and firing up the electrical current, but her much older brother Rudolph (Steven Geray) has been preventing her from succeeding by injecting each one of them with poison. (Of course, why the laboratory has an obviously labeled beaker of poison around is quite beyond me.) After her third failure what she needs, she decides, is a man that is "big and strong like a giant."
In a completely unrelated subplot, Jesse James (John Lupton) and his big, strong, giant sidekick Hank (Cal Bolder) hook up with the remnants of the Wild Bunch to hold up a stagecoach, but they're betrayed and Hank is shot. After finding out that dipping a handkerchief in water and dabbing at the wound doesn't help itmuch, Jesse and Hank are led by the beautiful Juanita (Estelita Rodriguez) to the mission above her deserted town where the Frankensteins are conducting their experiments. There Maria comes on to Jesse, who rejects her advances, and transplants the last of the artificial brains into Hank's noggin, turning him into her slave, Igor. What she plans to do with him after that is anybody's guess, and I'm sure director William Beaudine (who made the similar horror western Billy the Kid versus Dracula the same year) didn't know, either.
The same cannot be said of the protagonist of 1971's Lady Frankenstein, who has very specific (and unnatural) designs on the monster she creates. Directed by Mel Welles, who was a decade removed from The Little Shop of Horrors at this point in his career, the film stars a slumming Joseph Cotten as the Baron, who's been experimenting with animal transplants for 20 years and has recently started on people, and Rosalba Neri as his daughter Tania, who has returned from medical school as a fully licensed surgeon -- all the better to assist her father with his work. Like Maria in the first film, the Baron has a timid assistant (Paul Muller's Dr. Marshall) who warns him about the dangers of tampering in God's domain, etc. This is brought into sharp relief when the Baron's creature's face catches on fire during the electrical storm that brings it to life and, as a way of thanking the Baron, it hugs him to death.
While the creature is out ravaging the countryside, almost invariably coming across amorous couples where the girl is completely naked and the guy still has his pants on, Tania sets about convincing the reluctant Dr. Marshall to help her continue her father's work. She can be very persuasive, too, taking the much older man to bed and then promising to transplant his brain into the body of the handsome (but dumb) youth that works part-time at the castle. They could have lived happily ever after, too, if pesky police captain Mickey Hargitay would stop coming around and catching them in their obvious lies. And then there's the matter of the torch-wielding mob that puts in an appearance because, well, it's expected, you know?
Lady Frankenstein was made in Italy, which makes it something of a precursor to Paul Morrissey's Flesh for Frankenstein. The comparison doesn't really do Lady Frankenstein any favors, but I see from checking around online that it has its adherents, so maybe they got to see the uncut print, which is a full 14 minutes longer than the version New World Pictures released in the States (and probably much more explicit). All I know is the writers of The Horror Film guide got to see the longer cut and they still gave it zero stars, so I'm not going out of my way to track it down.
Mr. West, I suggest you get yourself a pen.
After making a name for himself in the Chicago theater scene, Stuart Gordon made the leap to feature films with 1985's Re-Animator, surely one of the most audacious directorial debuts in movie history. Based on H.P. Lovecraft's "Herbert West, Re-Animator" stories, the film not only announced a major directing talent but also jump-started the Lovecraft movie craze, which had largely been dormant since 1970's The Dunwich Horror. There had been a few films that took inspiration from his works, including 1979's L'isola degli uomini pesce (an uncredited adaptation of The Shadows Over Innsmouth whose title translates to The Island of the Fishmen), but Re-Animator showed that there was an audience for Lovecraftian horror while also proving that the best way to translate his work to the screen was not to worry about being too faithful.
The film also launched the career of Jeffrey Combs, who invested his Herbert West with such intensity and self-righteousness that he became, over the course of 86 minutes, one of the screen's most memorable antiheroes. (It also helps that he has a wicked sense of humor to match the film, which slowly reveals itself to be one of the sickest of horror comedies.) Combs is joined by Bruce Abbott as the Miskatonic Medical School student he ropes into helping him with his experiments, Barbara Crampton as Abbott's fiancée -- and the daughter of dean Robert Sampson, and David Gale as the school's top brain surgeon, who butts heads with Combs pretty much from the moment they meet, with Carolyn Purdy-Gordon as an overworked doctor who figures into the beginning and end of the film. All give credible performances, even as the absurdity of the story gets ramped up to the stratosphere, and avoid winking at the camera, which would have totally defeated what Gordon and his co-writers Dennis Paoli and William J. Norris were trying to achieve. Sure, there are many who consider what they did to be a travesty of Lovecraft's writing, but you can't deny they made a damned entertaining film out of it.
Monday, April 20, 2009
So foul and fair a day I have not seen.
Ten years ago today, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School armed to the teeth and proceeded to carry out the fourth-deadliest school massacre on American soil. Four years later Gus Van Sant's Elephant -- the second film in his long-take trilogy -- appeared at the 2003 Cannes Film Festival and proceeded to win the Golden Palm and Best Director awards. Less of an explanation for how a school shooting like Columbine happened and more of an exploration of the environment in which one could happen, Elephant follows a dozen students around a sprawling high school as they go about their business -- sometimes purposefully, sometimes seemingly aimlessly -- in the minutes leading up to the massacre. In order to do this Van Sant doubles back multiple times, occasionally showing the same action from different characters' perspectives, until something like a complete picture of the events of the morning is formed. The only time he breaks away from that timeline is to show his two killers as they make their plans, order their supplies and spend time together before the big day.
With the exception of a couple ringers (Timothy Bottoms as the drunk father of one of the students, Matt Malloy as the school principal), Van Sant cast the film almost entirely with nonprofessionals, which results in the some of the least-mannered ensemble acting ever captured on film. He also takes his time revealing who the killers are, leading the audience to wonder if it's the kid whose father talks of going hunting that weekend or maybe the photographer whose parents won't let him go to a concert that night. Mostly, though, he's introducing us to the characters whose lives are going to be changed most drastically, either by being victims of the massacre or narrowly escaping it. Suffice it to say, when the killers do arrive on the scene, you know them when you see them.
Van Sant's use of long, uninterrupted takes -- often with a tight focus that causes everything but the foreground subject to be blurry -- gives the film a dreamlike quality, with the camera acting as an impartial observer. Elephant is probably the most lyrical film about a school shooting you'll ever see, and that's even without the moments when it goes into slow motion. Ultimately, Van Sant may have few answers for why the tragedy took place (one of the shooters is presented as a bullied artistic type, but there's no one "trigger" event that causes him to snap) and he ends the film before its aftermath can be assessed, but there's no denying its power to disturb. Of course, somebody else watching it may take away something completely different. It's all in how you look at it -- and how much you let yourself see.
Tuesday, April 21, 2009
Don't get mixed up with a traveling player like me.
It's been a long time coming, but with 1934's A Story of Floating Weeds under my belt I have now seen all of the films by Yasijiro Ozu that are out on DVD. It wasn't the last of his silents since he continued steadfastly making them for a couple more years, but it is the last one that can be readily seen. So until Criterion decides to fill in the 15-year gap between this film and Late Spring (because really, who else is going to?), I can be content in the knowledge that I've seen all of the master's films that I can.
A story that Ozu liked so much he remade it 25 years later (as Floating Weeds), the film stars Takeshi Sakamoto as the leader of a troupe of actors that arrives in the town where his illegitimate son (Hideo Mitsui) lives with her mother (Chouko Iida), who has kept his father's true identity from him. That doesn't prevent Sakamoto from spending a lot of time with them, particularly as his troupe's performances keep getting rained out, but this doesn't sit well with his jealous leading lady (Rieko Yagumo), who dispatches the resident ingenue (Yoshiko Tsubouchi) to seduce the young man. That's all pretty much as it is in the later film, but one character that's unique to this one is the rambunctious son of one of the actors in the troupe -- a role that was tailor-made for Tomio Aoki (late of I Was Born, But... and Passing Fancy). Aoki's antics recede into the background as the drama of the main story heats up, which is only natural. With all the life-changing events taking place, there's less room for bed-wetting jokes and zealously guarded kitty banks.
Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Wasn't this supposed to be a documentary?
April is Animation Month for the Onion A.V. Club's New Cult Canon, and of the five films being written about I managed to see four (The Iron Giant, Jan Svankmajer's Alice, Spirited Away and The Triplets of Belleville) in theaters, leaving only 2001's Millennium Actress for me to catch up with on video. The film was co-written and directed by Satoshi Kon, to whose work I was first introduced by 1998's Perfect Blue, an unnerving story about a young singer whose grip on reality is irrevocably loosened by the unwanted attentions of a persistent stalker. Millennium Actress is somewhat lighter in tone as it follows a reclusive actress whose career started in the early '40s and ran the gamut from government propaganda films to samurai epics and from giant monster movies to space operas.
Long retired from show business, the actress is sought out by a TV interviewer when her old studio is in the process of being torn down. As the actress spins the stories of her life and her films, the interviewer and his cameraman get projected into her memories, which blur the line between fact and fiction, past and present. Eventually it comes out that the interviewer and the actress have more of a connection than he initially let on (at first it just seems like he's a closet fan) and secrets are revealed that have long been hidden. It's a visually stunning film, paying tribute to all facets of the Japanese film industry (with special attention to the works of Akira Kurosawa), and one that packs an emotional wallop as well. Kon followed it with Tokyo Godfathers (which I have seen) and Paprika (which I have not), and someday I hope to see one of his films on the big screen. (I came closest with Paprika, for which I actually saw the trailer at my local multiplex, but the film itself never made it.) The attention to detail he lavishes on them definitely warrants it.
Thursday, April 23, 2009
Revenge should have no bounds.
In late December 1996 I made a pilgrimage to New York City to see the four-hour version of Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. This was partially to satisfy my curiosity, for I was most eager to see it, but mostly because it was rumored at the time that only New York and Los Angeles would be getting the full-length version, with the rest of the country having to make do with a severely truncated cut. As it turned out these fears were unfounded, but I've learned from experience that it's better to be safe than sorry. Besides, since Branagh had gone to the trouble of filming the entire text of the play (something that had never been done before), it made sense for me to see it under the best possible circumstances. I also wanted to make up for missing Branagh's previous film, A Midwinter's Tale (which is about a group of misfits staging a ramshackle production of Hamlet), when it flitted in and out of theaters the year before.
Taken as a whole, Branagh's Hamlet is quite a wonder to behold, with stunning sets and costumes (both of which were quite rightly nominated come Oscar time), brilliant cinematography and a number of Hollywood stars rubbing shoulders with the cream of Britain's stage actors. In some cases the stunt casting works very well (Charlton Heston as the Player King, Billy Crystal as the First Gravedigger) and other times it's downright embarrassing (Jack Lemmon as Marcellus, Robin Williams mincing around as Osric), but if those were the sorts of concessions Branagh had to make in order to get the film financed, then so be it. What really matters are the central performances and it's hard to argue with the likes of Derek Jacobi, Julie Christie, Richard Briers, Michael Maloney and Kate Winslet. Oh yes, and that other chap. You know who I'm talking about. Used to be married to Emma Thompson. He was good, too.
Anyway, the reason why I chose to pull Hamlet down off the shelf today of all days is because it's Shakespeare's birthday. (Happy 445th, Bill!) I've actually been meaning to get to it ever since it came to DVD a year and a half ago (on my birthday, no less). After all, it was the first of my 100 Films That Should Be On DVD Already (61 of which are still MIA as of this writing). 'Tis a pity Todd Louiso's Fifteen Minute Hamlet (based on Tom Stoppard's abridgment of the play) remains stubbornly unavailable. That would have been the perfect counterpoint.
Everybody I ever met has a wound, one way or the other.
After last week's supremely disappointing Dance of the Dead I lowered my expectations for Tobe Hooper's second Masters of Horror episode, which helped 2006's The Damned Thing immeasurably. Based on a short story by Ambrose Bierce and a teleplay by Richard Christian Matheson, the episode is centered around a small Texas town where some crazy shit happens every couple dozen years or so. Sean Patrick Flanery plays the sheriff who's haunted by his memories of the night in 1981 when his father killed his mother and then chased him with a shotgun before coming to a violent end himself. That event was tied to unusually early thunderstorm activity, so Flanery realizes something is up when the thundering starts up anew and the townspeople start going crazy. Even local priest Ted Raimi gets in on the act, although it has to be said that his character is creepy pretty much from the word go. Then again, I can understand why he -- a man of the cloth in a town where a movie called Jesus Heist can play without incident -- would be ticked off.
Friday, April 24, 2009
Unenforced law is an invitation to anarchy.
Until I saw some clips of it in the 2004 documentary Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, I never really had a burning desire to see Heaven's Gate (a.k.a. Michael Cimino's Folly a.k.a. The Film That Brought United Artists Down). Even then, it wasn't until I learned of the passing of former UA executive Stephen Bach -- who literally wrote the book on the whole debacle -- last month that I decided the time had come to see the movie that Roger Ebert once called "a study in wretched excess" and included in his book I Hated, Hated, Hated This Movie. In the interim I've also read Back's book, which no doubt colored my perception of the film, but no more so than Ebert's scathing one-and-a-half star review.
Suffice it to say, there has been a lot of revisionism since those dark days of late 1980/early 1981 when Heaven's Gate became Hollywood's prime example of profligate overspending and egotism run wild. Sure, when he went into the film Michael Cimino had just won Best Picture and Best Director for The Deer Hunter, but that didn't mean he had carte blanche to do whatever he wanted. The fact that he took advantage of the situation and destroyed a viable studio in the process definitely had a negative effect on his career. To put it another way, if he had actually brought Heaven's Gate in on time and under budget, there's a very real chance that he would have more than seven features to his name by now. (The fact that he's only made four in the last three decades is quite telling.)
But what of the film itself? Is it really worth blocking out close to four hours of one's life to see or is it a monumental waste of time? In truth, it's a little bit of Column A and a bit more of Column B. On the one hand, it has an impeccable cast (from headliner Kris Kristofferson on down to Christopher Walken, John Hurt, Sam Waterston, Brad Dourif, Joseph Cotten, Jeff Bridges and Mickey Rourke). On the other hand, they're all pretty much wasted (e.g. Bridges spends the bulk of the final battle sequence shouting variations on "Get down!" and "Take cover!"). On the one hand, female lead Isabelle Huppert -- who plays a frontier madam at the apex of a love triangle with lawman Kristofferson and hired killer Walken -- doesn't shy away from doing multiple full-frontal scenes. On the other hand, whenever she opens her mouth it's clear that English is not her first language and may in fact be pretty far down on the list. On the one hand, Vilmos Zsigmond's cinematography is frequently quite stunning, providing gorgeous vistas for one to gawk at. On the other hand, it's almost entirely given over to the same burnished gold and brown hues, which can get quite monotonous after three and a half hours. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea.
To close, I find it quite telling that Joseph Cotten -- in the Harvard commencement speech that opens the film -- charges the graduates he's addressing with "the education of a nation." Cimino may not have intended to follow suit, but by the time Heaven's Gate reached audiences they had learned enough about the film to know to stay away in droves. And he gave studio executives an education of a different kind: when you see Michael Cimino coming your way, run.
Saturday, April 25, 2009
We are on the edge of a new dimension of discovery.
By the time Hammer Films got around to bringing Nigel Kneale's third Quatermass story, Quatermass and the Pit, to the big screen in 1967, a full decade had passed since the last entry in the series (the creatively titled Quatermass 2). Similarly, it has been a few years since I wrote about the first two Quatermass films, but there's never a bad time to reacquaint oneself with the good professor's adventures. Directed by Roy Ward Baker (taking over for Val Guest), Quatermass and the Pit (which was known as Five Million Years to Earth to American audiences who presumably wouldn't know Bernard Quatermass from Allan Quatermain) is an intellectually challenging science fiction film that overcomes its budgetary limitations to tell the compelling story of an ancient evil and those who try to make sense of it.
The film starts out modestly enough, with the discovery of some fossilized remains that disrupts a project to expand Hobbs End Underground station. Archaeologist James Donald and his assistant Barbara Shelley are eager to catalog the find, which consists of six ape-like creatures with large skulls dating back five million years, but when they uncover what appears to be an unexploded bomb left over from World War II they're brushed aside by Army colonel (and bomb expert) Julian Glover, who just so happens to have Prof. Quatermass (Andrew Keir, taking over for Brian Donlevy) in tow. Quatermass sympathizes with the archaeologists since Glover has been foisted onto his rocket research group as well, but their main concerns turn out to much more terrestrial in nature (or should that be extraterrestrial?).
I'll refrain from revealing any more because Kneale does such a superb job of developing the story (boiled down from the six-part serial that ran on the BBC starting in December 1958) that its mysteries should only be discovered as the scientists themselves uncover them. I will say, however, that the film has one of the most devastating finales this side of An American Werewolf in London. Now I'm anxious to see where Kneale took the character when he picked his story back up 12 years later in 1979's four-part Quatermass series (a.k.a. The Quatermass Conclusion, which sounds pretty apocalyptic to me).
The cult lives on. Cthulhu lives too, I suppose, waiting in the darkness.
In the two and a half decades since Re-Animator, countless filmmakers have tried their hands at bringing H.P. Lovecraft's works to the screen, with varying degrees of fidelity and success. In terms of faithfulness to its source material, it's unlikely that any will surpass 2005's The Call of Cthulhu, which presents Lovecraft's classic story in the form of a silent, black and white film, complete with intertitles and cutaways to journal entries and the like to give viewers a taste of his distinctive language. Adapted for the screen by Sean Branney and directed by Andrew Leman of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, the 47-minute film is a model of efficiency, eschewing the unnecessary padding that the leap to a feature-length running time would require, and conveying the scope of the original story while staying within a limited budget. And speaking of models, the special effects work -- while low-tech in places -- is remarkably effective and the stop-motion animation used to bring the titular beast to life is most enjoyable to watch. This is one for the ages.
I wish I could say the same for 2007's Cthulhu, which I got from Netflix after reading its description, but the actual film was something of a letdown. The biggest strike against it is that its script -- by Grant Cogswell and director Dan Gildark -- is merely inspired by the works of Lovecraft (and then only loosely). What it is really is a vaguely apocalyptic would-be creepfest about a gay college professor (Jason Cottle) who returns to his hometown of Rivermouth, Oregon, after the death of his mother to act as the executor of her estate. While home he hooks up with his childhood friend (and tow truck-driving stud) Scott Patrick Green and comes into conflict with his strict father, but Cthulhu gives that old standby a twist. You think it's hard growing up gay in a religious household? Well, try doing it in a family where the father is head of a cult that worships the Old Ones.
Not that we see a whole lot of Dagon-worshiping, apart from a single-file procession of chanting acolytes in robes -- and then it's only in long shot. And unlike in Dagon, where the protagonist is pursued relentlessly by a whole village full of mutated maniacs, in this film our hero is only sporadically chased by one guy through some quiet suburban streets. Not exactly a thrill a minute. What really works against the film, though, are the unintentionally funny details, like a newspaper article Cottle looks up that has the headline "Beloved Garbageman Goes Missing." (Really? Just how beloved was he? Were people flying their trash bags at half-mast?) And who exactly would classify the Esoteric Order of Dagon as a "New Age" church? And what about the subplot where blond seductress Tori Spelling transparently tries to get into Cottle's pants? Frankly, I don't know whether this was a gay-themed story with some Lovecraftian touches or a Lovecraftian horror film with gay overtones -- and I don't think the filmmakers know, either. A major disappointment.
Monday, April 27, 2009
Perhaps I was searching for something that no longer existed.
When I started watching Yasujiro Ozu's films a year and a half ago, I noted that Criterion's edition of 1949's Late Spring came with a 1985 film by Wim Wenders called Tokyo-Ga, which documented his trip to Japan to pay homage to the great filmmaker and the much-changed city where his films were set. As I was just starting out, I decided to wait on it until I had the same reverence for Ozu as Wenders evidently did. Now I feel like I've come full circle, borrowing the same copy of Late Spring from the library that I did in the fall of 2007. While I have it out I may end up giving the film another spin (I'm sure it's gained some resonance), but first things first.
Tokyo-Ga was evocatively photographed by Edward Lachman (who had previously shot 1980's Lightning Over Water for Wenders) and narrated by Wenders, who speaks of his desire to find some signs of the Tokyo that Ozu had captured on film. Instead he finds crowded subway stations, noisy pachinko parlors, taxis with portable TVs, rooftop golf stadiums and video arcades. He also meets Ozu regular Chishu Ryu, who visits the cemetery where the director is buried, runs into Werner Herzog on top of Tokyo Tower, and talks to Ozu's longstanding cameraman Yuuharu Atsuta, who had been with him for almost his entire career and didn't have the heart to continue working after Ozu passed away.
In the end, the most Ozu-like shots in the film are the ones of the various commuter trains seen winding their way through the city. They may look sleeker than the ones in 1953's Tokyo Story (scenes from which are used to bookend the film), but they still serve the same purpose they did 30 years earlier. Whether traveling to and from the suburbs or from one end of the city to the other, people will always have to get around.
Tuesday, April 28, 2009
I've been around the world several times and now only banality still interests me.
In the middle of Tokyo-Ga, Wim Wenders has a brief encounter with filmmaker Chris Marker in a bar named after Marker's seminal 1963 film La Jetée. Wenders then mentions on the soundtrack that he saw Marker's latest film, 1983's Sans Soleil, a few days later and realized Marker had captured a Tokyo to which he, as a foreigner, had no access. Having now seen Sans Soleil myself, I can sort of see what he was getting at (despite the fact that Marker, as a Frenchman, is as much a foreigner in Japan as Wenders is). Marker's film does go a lot deeper than Wenders was able to, but that probably has more to do with how much more familiar he was with the country and its customs than anything else.
To give some examples, Wenders focuses on the miniature TV in the taxi he's riding in for its novelty while Marker trains his camera on the TV in his hotel room and picks out the images that he wants to highlight. Wenders shoots commuters on trains as a simple homage to Ozu's train scenes; Marker intercuts shots of bored passengers with violent scenes from Japanese horror films. Wenders narrates his own film in a straightforward fashion; Marker invents a fictional cameraman named Sandor Krasna whose letters are read by a disembodied female voice. And Marker also incorporates footage shot in Africa (which provides for some stark contrasts) and San Francisco (which allows him to indulge his fixation on Hitchcock's Vertigo). And did I mention the cat shrine? Not to take anything away from Tokyo-Ga, which I found to be a perfectly pleasant viewing experience, but there's clearly a lot more going on in -- and lot more thought put into -- Sans Soleil. Of course, if it weren't for Criterion -- and the fact that my library is very good about acquiring its Collection -- I probably wouldn't have seen either.
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
I think of every double-decker loop as another loop towards my death.
After two tours in a row of Tokyo, it only seemed right for me to follow them up with something a little closer to home. The film: 1998's The Cruise. The town: New York City. Your guide: the flamboyant (but decidedly heterosexual) Timothy "Speed" Levitch, who has since shown up in films like Waking Life and Scotland, Pa. and even starred in the short-lived Adult Swim series Stroker and Hoop. This was the vehicle that introduced him to the world, though, and established the quintessential "Speed" Levitch role of the irrepressible slacker philosopher. (There's a reason why he fit right in with the rest of Waking Life's dreamers and deep thinkers.)
Produced, directed and photographed (on grainy black-and-white video) by Bennett Miller (who is evidently drawn to films centered around fey-voiced male characters since his follow-up was 2005's Capote), The Cruise is mostly content just to observe Levitch as he goes about his job, conducting idiosyncratic double-decker bus tours of the Big Apple, a town that he loves to "cruise" in his own inimitable fashion. Miller also follows him around the city on foot, giving him a forum to sound off on any subject he chooses, such as his antipathy toward the city's grid pattern and the complacency it engenders, as well as the "anti-cruise" forces arrayed against him. Levitch saves his most personal revelations for when he's communing with the Brooklyn Bridge, though. The sequence where he tells off everyone who's ever wronged him must have been very cathartic.
Thursday, April 30, 2009
An invisible man can rule the world. No one will see him come, no one will see him go.
My library is fully stocked up on Universal's "Legacy Collections," which encompass all of the studio's increasingly intertwined Dracula, Frankenstein and Wolf Man films, as well as less crossover-happy sets for the Invisible Man and the Mummy. I'm saving Drac and Frank for when they tie in with the Wolf Man series, though, so today I took in a double feature of see-through dudes, starting with 1933's The Invisible Man. Directed by James Whale from a screenplay by R.C. Sherriff (who was much more faithful to H.G. Wells's novel than most Universal screenwriters were in the habit of being), The Invisible Man may have come between the twin triumphs of Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, but I would contend that it is every bit their equal, with performances and special effects that continue to hold up today.
Heading the cast, despite the fact that he doesn't physically appear until the very end of the film, is Claude Rains, who perfectly captures Jack Griffin's intellectual cadence and budding megalomania. His is a classic character -- the scientist driven mad by his own experiments -- and Whale gives him one of the best entrances in motion picture history when he invades a jovial English pub in the dead of winter, all bandaged and goggled up. Eager to complete his work in secret, Griffin is repeatedly thwarted by the locals (including nosy innkeeper's wife Una O'Connor) until he sees no recourse but to expose himself, thus setting off a panic. Meanwhile, Griffin's fiancée (Gloria Stuart) is dreadfully concerned about him, as is her scientist father (Henry Travers), but the man Griffin goes to is his would-be romantic rival (William Harrigan), who turns out to be a disloyal, spineless coward. At least the cad gets what's coming to him, but no crime goes unpunished in a '30s horror film and Griffin has plenty to answer for by the time all is said and done.
In contrast, the hero of the 1940 sequel The Invisible Man Returns is a man who has been wrongfully imprisoned for a murder he did not commit and uses the invisibility serum to break out and track down the real culprit. Directed by Joe May from a screenplay co-written by Curt Siodmak, Returns stars Vincent Price as the owner of a coal mining operation who's been sent up for the murder of his brother, with Nan Grey as his concerned fiancée, and John Sutton as the younger brother of Rains's character in The Invisible Man, who helps him and then tries desperately to find an antidote before the drug drives him insane. The film also features Cedric Hardwicke as Price's cousin, who stands to inherit his company, Cecil Kellaway as the clever Scotland Yard inspector on his trail, and Forrester Harvey (who played O'Connor's husband in The Invisible Man) as another man who comes to regret letting an invisible man stay under his roof. Hardly essential viewing, but fun nonetheless -- and the effects are just as impressive.
Back to March 2009 -- Onward to May 2009
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