Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
July 2009

Wednesday, July 1, 2009
It was like life was a pornographic film.

As a kind of preplanned corrective to Cruising's ugly negativity, I also rented Joseph Lovett's 2005 documentary Gay Sex in the 70s, which tackles the subject in a much less judgmental fashion. Covering the period from Stonewall in 1969 to the emergence of AIDS in 1981, the film relies on a combination of archival photos and contemporary interviews (along with a few vintage adult film clips) to the tell the story of the hedonistic atmosphere that pervaded New York City throughout the decade. From the trucks to the piers, from the meat market to Central Park, from the baths to the clubs and bars, and finally to Fire Island (the ultimate gay vacation mecca), Lovett's interview subjects (one of whom is the director himself) speak openly and wistfully about the many places they went to have casual sex (and occasionally make more long-term connections).

Of course, as it did in After Stonewall, the specter of AIDS hangs over the proceedings, and it looms especially large when the film gets into some of the gay male-specific sexually transmitted diseases that started popping up as the decade wore on, but AIDS itself doesn't actually enter the picture until nearly an hour in -- and the film is only 71 minutes long (with credits). This isn't too surprising since AIDS literally rang the death knell for the unchecked promiscuity that was the hallmark of the era. As Lovett himself says during one of the interview segments, "Some people have talked about it as the most libertine period that the Western world has ever seen since Rome, basically." The comparison is apt, too. After all, the Roman Empire did eventually fall.

Thursday, July 2, 2009
If you don't get killed, it's a lucky day for anybody.

When I decided to watch the cult film noir Force of Evil tonight, I had no idea how good my timing was, but it turns out it was quite excellent. You see, the film takes place around the Fourth of July holiday and its plot is about a numbers racket that is fixed by the mob so that 776 -- a number that a lot of people play on July 4 -- comes up, causing all of the numbers banks to go bust and allowing the mob to sweep in and take charge. It's a hard-hitting film about corruption in the big city that was co-written and directed by Abraham Polonsky, who had previously written the boxing noir Body and Soul and was soon to be blacklisted, which prevented him from directing another film for two decades (although he did co-write the script for Odds Against Tomorrow behind a front). Still, even if this had remained his sole directing credit, he couldn't have asked for a better example of his talent behind the camera.

Like Body and Soul, Force of Evil starred John Garfield (whose production company made both films), this time as a shady lawyer (is there any other kind?) working with mob boss Roy Roberts on a scheme to legalize the numbers racket. He stands to make a bundle on the deal, but it's at the expense of his older brother (Thomas Gomez, who played one of the gangsters in Key Largo), who has a heart problem and whose small-time bank is in danger of being wiped out along with all the others. Garfield also has to contend with the mob boss's flirtatious wife (Marie Windsor, who went on to play Elisha Cook's wayward wife in The Killing) and a more legitimate love interest in the form of his brother's assistant (Beatrice Pearson, who was introduced in this film and only did one more feature before retiring from the screen). The one person whose love and approval he desires most, though, is his brother, and that's not going to be easy to come by. Theirs is a family where mistrust -- and misdeeds -- run deep.

Friday, July 3, 2009
There are worse things awaiting man than death.

Universal Pictures had made a handful of horror films during the silent era, but its horror series really came into its own with the release of 1931's Dracula, the first sound version of Bram Stoker's novel and the film that made Bela Lugosi as much a star of the screen as he was on the stage. Directed by Tod Browning, with the invaluable assistance of cinematographer Karl Freund, the film was based on the 1927 Broadway play that Lugosi had starred in and which also featured Edward Van Sloan, who would reprise his role as Prof. Van Helsing. Newcomers to the story included Helen Chandler, who plays Mina, fiancée of John Harker (David Manners) and daughter of Dr. Seward (Herbert Bunston). And essaying the role of Seward's star lunatic Renfield was Dwight Frye, who seamlessly made the transition from timid real estate agent to crazy-eyed bug-eater.

Prior to this, Bram Stoker's vampiric count had been brought to the screen by F.W. Murnau in 1922's Nosferatu (albeit without Stoker's widow's permission) and also in a Hungarian film of similar vintage that has since been lost, but the 1931 version of Dracula was the one that set the standard and influenced countless vampire films to come. For one thing, it established the rules: that Dracula can change into a bat or a wolf or a mist at will (although the bat is the only one of the three we see onscreen). He is repelled by wolfsbane and crosses and avoids mirrors because he casts no reflection in them. Furthermore, he has to cart around a coffin filled with soil from his homeland to sleep in during the day and he can be killed by having a stake driven through his heart. Most of all, though, he doesn't drink... wine and he looks positively dashing in evening wear. Too bad the only other time Lugosi officially played the character was in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, but Universal had other things in mind when it came time to make the sequel...

Saturday, July 4, 2009
To really die, to be really dead, must be sublime.

Because sound film was still in its infancy in 1931, instead of dubbing Tod Browning's Dracula for foreign markets, Universal brought in a Spanish-speaking cast to shoot another version of the story at the same time and on the same sets. (Hitchcock had done the same thing the year before with Murder! -- which was called Mary in its German incarnation -- and Fritz Lang repeated the trick a couple years later with The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, only that time the alternate version was in French.) In Universal's case, though, the Spanish-language Drácula (note the accent) was shot at night by a different director (George Melford, who didn't speak a word of Spanish) after Bela Lugosi and company went home. Maybe that contributed to the macabre atmosphere because in certain ways this version is more chilling than its more famous sibling.

Apart from the shots of the coach being driven through the Transylvanian countryside and the first scene with Dracula's brides after they've been awakened, there is little overlap in footage between the two versions. (This one even uses different inserts of the nocturnal creatures that inhabit Castle Dracula, and it omits the incongruous shot of the armadillos that is in the English version.) And it may use outtakes of Lugosi for some of the long shots, but it leaves all of the heavy lifting to Carlos Villarías, who makes for a much more understated Count. In fact, everyone in the cast has more to do since this version runs a full half hour longer thanks to the extension of some of the scenes between Renfield (a feral Pablo Álvarez Rubio) and Van Helsing (Eduardo Arozamena) and the inclusion of things that are only talked about or implied (like the staking of the Lucy character or the close-up of the bite marks on her neck) in Browning's film. The most telling change, though, is the fact that it is Dracula's brides who feed upon Renfield at the beginning of the film and not Dracula himself. Lugosi may act the gentleman, but Villarías knows that ladies go first.

Sunday, July 5, 2009
Look at me. What do you see in my eyes?

When the time came to make a sequel to Dracula in 1936, Universal decided that the best course of action was to pick up right where the first film left off. Unfortunately, they undercut the solemnity of its finale somewhat by having Van Helsing (again played by Edward Van Sloan, although his character was renamed Von Helsing for some stupid reason) immediately placed in police custody, which leads to more excruciating comic "relief" with nervous bobby E.E. Clive than one would expect from a Universal monster movie not featuring anybody named Abbott or Costello. And regrettably, that sets the tone for the bulk of the film, which is continually throwing in tiresome bits of "comedy" to gum up the works. James Whale may have been able to goose the Frankenstein legend in Bride of Frankenstein, but Lambert Hillyer (a contract director more versed in westerns) was no James Whale.

The cast doesn't help him much, especially petulant psychiatrist Otto Kruger, who is called away from a grouse hunt in Scotland to undertake the defense of Van Helsing, and his insufferable assistant Marguerite Churchill. Gloria Holden fares a bit better as the title character, a Romanian countess who destroys Dracula's body in an effort to escape his infernal influence, and Irving Pichel is suitably creepy as her mortal caretaker who knows her curse won't be lifted so easily. The shadow of the first film is also inescapable, with some scenes (like the one in the operating room after Holden's first victim is discovered) repeated almost verbatim (it even uses the same exact establishing shot) and at least one line reading ("I never drink... wine.") that is shamelessly copied. At least they differentiated between their hypnotic techniques: while Dracula relied solely on his eyes, his daughter uses a fancy ring to dominate her victims. I wonder which side of the divide her brother will fall on...

Monday, July 6, 2009
In Transylvania, the name is associated only with evil.

Another day, another Dracula movie. Tonight it was 1943's Son of Dracula, which Universal made as a vehicle for Lon Chaney Jr., who was quickly becoming their go-to monster man. (This was his sixth monster movie in three years for the studio and his fifth monster overall, having essayed the role of Kharis the Mummy in The Mummy's Tomb the previous year.) This is the film where Chaney wears a strange little mustache and attempts to pass himself off as Count Alucard (not a very well-chosen alias, all things considered). It's also the first one where Universal's special effects unit really stepped up, animating his transitions from bat to human form (although it must be said that the bat effects themselves are extremely hokey) and employing dissolves to and from his mist form. (Disappointingly, we still don't get to see the count in his wolf form, although it is talked about during a general discussion of vampire lore.)

A marked improvement over Dracula's Daughter, which was only intermittently spooky, Son of Dracula was directed by Robert Siodmak and based on a story by his younger brother Curt Siodmak, who decided that Chaney's count would tire of the Old World and find his way to the new one (much like the Siodmaks themselves did). Furthermore, he would settle in the Deep South when he happens to meet a raven-haired Southern belle (Louise Allbritton) who stands to inherit the family plantation (which has the sinister name of Dark Oaks) and whose interest in the macabre makes her a perfect candidate for conversion. His only obstacles are the lady's jilted fianceé (Robert Paige), a medical doctor (Frank Craven) who is the first to puzzle out what Alucard spells backwards, and a Hungarian university professor (J. Edward Bromberg) whose specialized knowledge comes in handy when strange things start happening.

Unlike Dracula's Daughter, which boasted an unseemly amount of unfunny comic relief, Son of Dracula plays things relatively straight, although early on it does seem like there's going to be some trouble with the black servants who work on the plantation. They quickly exit the picture, though (and none too soon considering how unenlightened Hollywood was when it came to black characters in the '40s). That leaves the way clear for the atmospheric scenes that take place around the estate, including one eerie sequence -- probably the best in the whole film -- where Chaney's coffin emerges from the depths of the murky swamp, over which he materializes and floats to where Allbritton is waiting for him. After witnessing a feat like that, one can easily see why she would prefer him to an ordinary mortal.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009
Master, it's night again. Beautiful, dark, silent night.

Following the lead of Universal's Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, Columbia Pictures cranked out its own monster match-up with 1944's The Return of the Vampire, in which Bela Lugosi played one of the creatures of the night for the first time since the original Dracula (1935's Mark of the Vampire doesn't count) and in which he has a subservient werewolf played by Matt Willis to do his bidding. As movie werewolves go, Willis is definitely on the hairier end of the spectrum, and he gets a lot of great close-ups early on because director Lew Landers deliberately holds off on revealing Lugosi for the first third of the picture -- and he evidently wanted to be sure audiences got their monster's worth.

The film opens in 1918, when Lugosi (playing a character named Armand Tesla -- no relation to Nikola, I'm guessing) is dispatched not by a wooden stake through the heart but rather by a metal spike, and then leaps forward 23 years to London during the Blitz, when it was being bombarded by the Germans on a nightly basis (giving the filmmakers license to use plenty of stock footage). Lugosi's grave is disturbed by one of the bombs and, after the spike is removed by a couple of bumbling caretakers (the likes of which I thought had been left behind in Dracula's Daughter), he's more then primed to make his comeback.

One of the Lugosi's first tasks is to reconquer the will of his werewolf pal, who has been in remission under the care of psychiatrist Frieda Inescort, but it doesn't take much for Willis to become his sharp-fanged and bushy-tailed self again. Next Lugosi targets Inescort, who was a party to his staking and whose pianist son (Roland Varno) is engaged to the comely young Nina Foch, the grown-up daughter of the Oxford professor who figured out they were dealing with a vampire all those years ago. Naturally, Lugosi feels he has a bone to pick with both families and disrupting a wedding between them seems like the most natural thing to do. He should have paid more attention to his furry Man Friday, though. As the Underworld movies have shown us, werewolves have a way of turning on their vampire masters when they feel unappreciated.

Friday, July 10, 2009
My mind's been acting kinda weird lately.

Back from my vacation and I have a bunch of movies to write about, so let's get to it. First out of the gate was Moon, which was directed by Duncan Jones, who also came up with the story upon which Nathan Parker's screenplay was based. Since Jones is the son of David Bowie (his original given name was Zowie -- can't imagine why he changed it), it only seems natural that he would pick such an out-of-this-world premise for his feature film debut: Sam Rockwell plays a technician nearing the end of his three-year haul harvesting Helium-3 (a previously untapped source of energy) on the far side of the moon. It's a one-man operation, though, so Rockwell's starting to get a little punchy, even with the reassuring companionship of the outpost's computer GERTY, which is voiced by Kevin Spacey and comes equipped with a series of situation-appropriate emoticons. To reveal more about the story would require me to give away some surprising developments, but I will say that the attention to detail on the sets and costumes is stunning. (Rockwell's space suit, in particular, really looks like it's been lived in.) For that reason alone, it's worth seeking out on the big screen (and it just expanded to 247 screens last weekend, so you have a better than average chance of finding it).

Saturday, July 11, 2009
You gonna burn in hell for that one.

In comparison, anybody who wants to see Brüno -- Sacha Baron Cohen's latest assault on Middle American values and prejudices -- should have no problem locating it on any of a number of screens in their vicinity. Directed by Larry Charles, who previously helmed Borat as well as the Bill Maher documentary Religulous, Brüno takes Baron Cohen's character -- a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista who will be familiar to viewers of Da Ali G Show -- out of the European fashion world and transplants him to America, where he seeks fame at any cost with the aid of his faithful assistant Lutz (Swedish actor Gustaf Hammarsten), who has an enormous crush on Brüno despite the fact that he barely knows Lutz exists. After a shaky start in Hollywood, where Brüno's misadventures include being the most disruptive extra the show Medium has ever seen and pitching a celebrity interview show with more exposed penises than the network's focus group could comfortably handle, he tries his hand at resolving the tension in the Middle East before returning to the States with an African baby in tow, which leads to a hilarious sequence where he interviews parents who will agree to just about anything if it means their toddler will get a modeling job.

Brüno's detractors may complain that it hews a little too closely to the template established by Borat, but what ultimately matters with a film like this is not how the story develops, but rather what kinds of reactions Baron Cohen is able to elicit from unsuspecting participants along the way. (I'm sure when Ron Paul agreed to an interview he wasn't expecting Brüno to start coming on to him, nor did Paula Abdul anticipate being asked to use a Mexican day laborer as furniture.) The film really hits its stride when Brüno tries to go straight, engaging in such hetero-centric activities as joining the National Guard, going hunting with some rednecks and attending a swinger's party (where he can't seem to keep his hands off the guys). Whether his antics will inspire any homophobes to alter their attitudes is an open question, but at least the rest of us get to have a good laugh.

Sunday, July 12, 2009
Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Having spent the better part of the weekend helping to run the Cherry Hill Experiment, during which we showed such awful movies as Star Odyssey (a cheap Italian space opera from 1979), the tortoise-paced Creation of the Humanoids (no wonder Andy Warhol considered it his favorite movie), Collision Course (with oodles of offhand racism courtesy of mismatched cops Jay Leno and Pat Morita) and Fair Game (which was shown as part of our Night on Baldwin Mountain), I chose to unwind Sunday night with one of the free movies available on FEARnet On Demand. Unfortunately the selection wasn't too great because the only thing I was even vaguely interested in was 2001 Maniacs, the 2005 remake of Herschell Gordon Lewis's Two Thousand Maniacs!. (I guess they managed to unearth an extra maniac during the intervening 41 years.)

Co-written by director Tim Sullivan (who was born the same year Lewis's original film was released) and Chris Kobin (who is writing the proposed sequel -- creatively titled 2001 Maniacs: The Sequel -- with him), 2001 Maniacs features a trio of collegiate cut-ups on spring break (who ignore professor Peter Stormare's warning about learning from history), a threesome they run into on the road, and a black motorcyclist and his Asian girlfriend, all of whom wind up as the guests of honor at Pleasant Valley's Guts N Glory Jubilee, which is presided over by sinister mayor Robert Englund (who even has the Confederate flag on his eye patch). Over the course of the film the interloping Northerners get pulled apart by horses, force-fed acid, crushed by a bell, skewered, dismembered, pressed and beheaded by barb wire. In other words, fun for the whole family! I wish I could say I found it enjoyable (after all, it shares the same "surefire premise" as
Lewis's original), but I guess I'm just not cut out for these kinds of over-the-top gore films.

Monday, July 13, 2009
Charm has never been a priority for me.

While I was back in New Jersey, I made a point of catching Woody Allen's latest, Whatever Works, because it doesn't seem like it will be showing up in Bloomington anytime soon. (Sometimes I think Kerasotes withholds certain movies deliberately to annoy me.) The film is his first set in the States since 2004's Melinda and Melinda (although the return appears to be short-lived since his next one has the working title Untitled Woody Allen London Project) and stars Larry David (who had small roles in Radio Days and Oedipus Wrecks two decades ago) as a conceited misanthrope named Boris Yellnikoff (who doesn't yell so much as he seethes and rages at the world) who tells the story of his oddball relationship with runaway Mississippi beauty pageant contestant Evan Rachel Wood, who is so empty-headed when they meet that she quickly becomes infected by his defeatist worldview.

As latter-day Woody Allen comedies go, this one definitely has more going for it than, say, Scoop or Anything Else. And while Allen certainly could have pulled off the central role, giving it to someone like Larry David somehow takes the edge off the terrible things he says. (A one-time Nobel prize candidate for physics, he now ekes out a living teaching chess to imbecilic kids, all of whom suffer his verbal -- and occasionally physical -- abuse. Somehow I don't think he gets much repeat business.) The film also features Michael McKean as one of David's indulgent friends, Patricia Clarkson as Wood's mother (whose arrival seems to herald a slew of born-again Christian jokes, but then she has a complete -- and completely unexpected -- turnaround), Henry Cavill as the hunky young actor she tries to set Wood up with, and Ed Begley Jr. as Wood's father, who has a similar change of attitude about after meeting Christopher Evan Welch in a bar. (I'm not positive about this, but I think this may actually be the first Woody Allen film to feature a gay couple.) Clearly this is a film that takes place in the realm of fantasy (where every Southerner can be cured of their hickness simply by coming to New York City and cutting loose in a way they never though possible before), but hey, whatever works, right?

Tuesday, July 14, 2009
I've never been in a floating house before.

The last film on my vacation agenda was Pixar's Up, which I could have easily seen at any time over the past month and a half, but I made a point of waiting so I could see it with
Kevin Pease (who was feeling somewhat under the weather but joined me anyway because he's that kind of friend). Directed by Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, this is yet another in a long line of brilliant successes for the computer animation giant, which doesn't really need me to sing their praises. Pretty much everything you expect to be a given with Pixar -- the breathtaking visuals, the meticulously worked-out story, the terrific voice cast (including Ed Asner, Christopher Plummer, Delroy Lindo and John Ratzenberger), the mix of warmth and humor -- is present and accounted for. This time around, though, there's an undercurrent of melancholy that keeps everything grounded, which is important when you're telling a story about a crotchety old man who attaches hundreds of helium balloons to his house so he can fly it to South America. Leave it to Pixar to not only come up with such an outlandish idea, but also to pull it off.

Friday, July 17, 2009
Don't give me any of that "intelligent life" stuff. Find me something I can blow up.

While I was watching Moon last week, one film that kept popping into my head was John Carpenter's Dark Star, which he co-wrote with Dan O'Bannon when they were students at USC in the early '70s and then expanded to feature length for general release. As with a lot of student films, its makers ended up wearing a lot of hats (Carpenter produced and directed, plus he wrote and performed the original music; O'Bannon was responsible for the film editing, production design and supervised the special effects, in addition to playing one of the leading roles), going the extra mile to give it a quasi-professional sheen that it might have otherwise lacked. Even the acting, which can sometimes drag ventures like this down, is completely credible. Of course, it helps that the characters are all burned out after 20 years of blowing up unstable planets (but thanks to the vagaries of space travel they've only aged three years). That's the kind of job that would wear anybody down -- but it beats feeding the alien.

I'd hate to meet that in a dark alley somewhere.

Saturday, July 18, 2009
It's like I'm sitting here waiting for something to happen to me, only I don't know what it is.

It's been a couple months since I watched one of my "Chilling Classics," so today I went straight for the hard stuff: 1978's The Alpha Incident. How did I know it was going to be so bad? Five words: "A Film by Bill Rebane." Nothing strikes fear into the hardiest of bad movie buffs quite like them.

Fans of Mystery Science Theater 3000 will know Rebane as the guy who gave us Monster A Go-Go (which was completed by Herschell Gordon Lewis when Rebane ran out of money) and The Giant Spider Invasion (which would go down as the worst film ever made in Wisconsin if he hadn't kept making them). The Alpha Incident was Rebane's attempt at an Andromeda Strain-type thriller about an alien microorganism that kills every living creature it comes into contact with -- and in an extremely grotesque manner to boot. Instead of sticking with the scientists working around the clock to find an antidote, though, Rebane and writer Ingrid Neumayer (who also co-wrote The Legend of Bigfoot with him the following year) repeatedly strand us for long stretches of time with the five people quarantined at a remote Wisconsin train station, all of whom don't take long to get on each other's and the audience's nerves. (Sadly, that number gets whittled down to four fairly quickly when George 'Buck' Flower -- the most interesting character in the film -- runs off to die in the woods, having been exposed to the contagion first.)

Eventually it comes out that the four survivors (government biochemist Stafford Morgan, loudmouthed jerk John Goff, hysterical bookkeeper Carol Irene Newell, somnambulant station master Ralph Meeker) have to stay awake if they want to stay alive, so the government provides them with coffee and amphetamines to keep them going. (I wonder if theater owners had to do something similar.) Meanwhile, the scientists (John Alderman and Giant Spider Invasion veteran Paul Bentzen) keep working, occasionally pausing to say things like, "I hope those people can stay awake. I hate to think what they'll go through if they fall asleep." Of course, if they're talking about the people watching the movie, the worst that could happen is they might catch a few winks. That wouldn't be so bad, would it?

If it weren't so gruesome, it would be fascinating.

The first Alien has a lot of things to answer for. One of them was the sudden proliferation of films set in outer space where slimy creatures stalked nubile women down ill-lit corridors -- oftentimes placing them in sexually compromising positions. Galaxy of Terror, which was released by Roger Corman's New World Pictures in 1981, has a bit more on its mind than just that, but co-writer/director Bruce D. Clark (whose previous efforts include the little-seen biker film Naked Angels and the blaxploitation non-classic Hammer) still made sure that when one of his actresses is attacked by a giant, slime-spewing space maggot that it rips off her clothes and rapes her in the process. (That's something to put on your resume: "Is willing to be raped by giant, slime-spewing space maggot on camera.")

The plot, which couldn't be more transparently lifted from Alien, concerns a rescue crew sent on a mission to a remote planet where they find no survivors, but there is something -- or some things -- out there picking them off one by one, frequently in the form of what they fear the most. (When one character announces that she hates tight spaces, you just know she's going to bite the dust while squeezing through one.) The film features a bizarre cast, including a mustachioed Edward Albert (son of Eddie) as our hero, Erin Moran as the sensitive Deanna Troi type he loves, Grace Zabriskie as the reckless captain with a mysterious past, future Red Shoe Diaries creator Zalman King as the trigger-happy security officer, Robert Englund as the ship's surgeon, Sid Haig as the fighter who "lives and dies by the crystals" (whatever that means) and Ray Walston as the ship's cook who clearly knows more than he's letting on. It's also notable for being one of James Cameron's last production jobs before he turned director with Piranha II: The Spawning. (Not exactly the most auspicious debut.)

Monday, July 20, 2009
Man must explore.

To commemorate the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing, Turner Classic Movies has been showing films about space travel all day today, which is how I got to see the documentary For All Mankind, which was itself put together in time for the 20th anniversary in 1989. Directed by Al Reinert, who later collaborated on the screenplay for Apollo 13 and wrote two episodes of the series From the Earth to the Moon, the film used archival footage shot by NASA during its various moonshots in the late '60s and early '70s (much of which would have an ethereal feel even without the Brian Eno music) coupled with audio interviews with many of the astronauts who had taken part in them. More than just a time capsule, it's an invaluable reminder of a time not so long ago when America had the wherewithal to try some damned fool things just because they hadn't been done before -- and for science, no less. Maybe that expedition to Mars doesn't seem quite so far-fetched now.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009
It takes a special kind of man to volunteer for a suicide mission.

I actually started watching Philip Kaufman's The Right Stuff last night, but stopped halfway through to catch TCM's premiere of For All Mankind, for which Robert Osborne was joined by astronaut Buzz Aldrin. Aldrin also stuck around to help introduce the next film, which just so happened to be The Right Stuff. (Coincidence? I think not.) Based on the book by Tom Wolfe and written for the screen by Kaufman, The Right Stuff was an epic undertaking and one that stymied at least one Hollywood heavy-hitter. (The original screenwriter was William Goldman, whose intention had been to jettison all of Wolfe's material about Chuck Yeager, but Kaufman wanted Yeager in so Goldman ended up leaving the project.) It was certainly a major step up for Kaufman, who had never made a film on this scale before, although 1979's The Wanderers had given him a taste of the challenges of period filmmaking.

The Right Stuff spans the decade and a half between 1947, when Chuck Yeager (Sam Shepard, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance) was the first man to break the sound barrier, and 1963, when Gordon Cooper (Dennis Quaid) was the last of the Mercury 7 to go into space (as well as the last astronaut NASA sent into space alone). In between Kaufman has a lot of ground to cover, including the introduction of at least a dozen major characters (played by the likes of Scott Glenn, Ed Harris, Fred Ward, Barbara Hershey, Kim Stanley, Veronica Cartwright, Pamela Reed, Lance Henriksen and Donald Moffat, with Jeff Goldblum and Harry Shearer doing a nice double act as a pair of mismatched recruiters), the establishment of the Mercury program, and its ups and downs as the astronauts trained and the scientists tried to keep up with the Soviets in the ever-competitive space race. That he manages to do it with a great deal of humor (some of it base, some of it fairly witty) says a lot about how much Kaufman wanted to humanize his heroes. Suffice it to say, no one will ever mistake this for a whitewash job (although the PG rating assures that it doesn't get too bawdy).

Wednesday, July 22, 2009
Maybe this is your chance to pay society back for all the trouble you've caused it.

In 1964, while he was in the midst of polishing off his Poe cycle for AIP, Roger Corman struck out on his own and traveled to Croatia and Yugoslavia to film the World War II adventure yarn The Secret Invasion (not to be confused with with the Red Scare allegory -- and MST3K staple -- Invasion, U.S.A.). Written by R. Wright Campbell, who had penned The Young Racers for Corman the year before, The Secret Invasion plays like The Dirty Dozen with half the cast and a fraction of the budget -- only Corman actually beat that film to the punch by a few years (a practice he would come to perfect when he turned independent producer a few years later).

In this case, the officer leading the mission behind enemy lines is played by Stewart Granger and the criminals he handpicks for the assignment are Italian thief Raf Vallone, IRA bomb-maker Mickey Rooney (complete with Irish accent!), brash young forger Edd Byrnes, emotionless killer Henry Silva, and pretty boy William Campbell. There's even a love interest of sorts for Silva in the form of Slovenian actress Spela Rozin (billed here as Mia Massini -- I guess people they wanted people to think she was Italian). This being a war film, though, they have little time to declare their feelings for each other (which would admittedly be difficult since he accidentally smothers her fatherless baby at one point). Still, it's fairly safe to say that this is the first English-language film to feature onscreen breastfeeding. (That's one way to slip a naked breast past the censors, Roger -- show what it's actually used for!)

Thursday, July 23, 2009
We have to dig, get through and piss off.

I didn't plan it this way, but I had the perfect follow-up to The Secret Invasion all ready to go with Jacques Becker's 1960 swan song Le Trou. While Corman's film was about a group of prisoners digging a tunnel into a Nazi prison in order to spring a potential Italian resistance fighter, Le Trou is about a group of prisoners digging a tunnel in order to break themselves out of the French prison where they're incarcerated. (Its English title is quite literally The Hole.) It's based on a novel by José Giovanni, which was itself based on an actual escape attempt that occurred in 1947, and Becker's attention to detail is such that you believe it every single step of the way.

In his matter-of-fact way, Becker establishes the situation: four inmates have been planning a breakout under the direction of escape expert Jean Keraudy when a new arrival (Marc Michel) is transferred to their already crowded cell. The other inmates (Michel Constantin, Philippe Leroy, Raymond Meunier) invite him to join them and he readily agrees as he's staring down a possible 20-year sentence. What follows is a tense three-stage escape as the prisoners break through the floor into the basement, then locate the entrance to the well, and finally dig their way around a barrier in the sewer. What makes it especially nerve-wracking is Becker's decision not to include any music, which heightens the drama and gives the men's activity (this is an extremely physical movie) a real primacy. By the time they break through the final barrier, we feel like we've been digging alongside them. A remarkable achievement and a landmark in French cinema.

We don't have to be treated like that, do we? I mean, we're not animals.

Pop quiz! What's the opposite of a hole? If you said "a hill," then you are 100% correct. Full marks! Next question: What is the most logical film to follow Le Trou? How about Sidney Lumet's The Hill? Yes, that'll do nicely. Made in 1965, The Hill was Lumet's first film with Sean Connery and the start of a fruitful collaboration that would also produce The Anderson Tapes, The Offence, Murder on the Orient Express and -- much later down the road -- Family Business.

In this film, Connery plays a busted sergeant major sent to a brutal North African military prison who immediately butts heads with sadistic R.S.M. Harry Andrews, who believes in discipline above all else. And unlucky for Connery, he gets assigned to rookie staff sergeant Ian Hendry, who's so eager to prove himself that he inadvertently causes the death of a delicate private (Alfred Lynch) placed in his charge. The other new arrivals that we see suffer under Hendry are West Indian Ossie Davis (who finds the King's Army isn't all it's cracked up to be), grifter Roy Kinnear (who hasn't seen much action since he's spent most of his service time in and out of prison) and tough guy Jack Watson, none of whom last very long against the titular hill, which is Andrews's primary means of breaking prisoners. Meanwhile Ian Bannen's more compassionate staff sergeant and Michael Redgrave's perpetually drunk medical officer watch from the sidelines, unable to prevent the tragedy unfolding before their eyes. Of course, the way Andrews runs the place, something like this was bound to happen sooner or later.

Friday, July 24, 2009
You have no place among real people.

In 1966, Sidney Lumet hopped onto the spy movie bandwagon with The Deadly Affair, which was based on John le Carré's first novel, Call For The Dead. (His third, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, had been made into a film the year before and also boasted a screenplay by Paul Dehn.) The film starts out benignly enough, with British agent James Mason conducting a routine security check on a government official who turns up dead that night, an apparent suicide. This doesn't satisfy Mason, though, so he looks into the situation -- aided by retired police inspector (and chronic narcoleptic) Harry Andrews and helpful colleague Kenneth Haigh -- at the same time he's dealing with wife Harriet Andersson's serial infidelity.

During his investigation he looks up the official's somewhat bitter widow (Simone Signoret), runs down a shady car dealer (Roy Kinnear), and gets a vital clue from a young Lynn Redgrave. He also keeps bumping into Maximilian Schell, who was in his spy network during the war, but since it's gone cold he's gone into a different line of business. Mason eventually figures the whole thing out, but to say the solution isn't exactly to his liking is an understatement. Spy films of the '60s sure loved their downbeat endings.

Saturday, July 25, 2009
Everybody in his lifetime spends a certain amount of his life in fantasy.

I'm not sure how hard-up Mickey Rooney was in 1971, but if it was enough for him to have to make The Manipulator, then I feel very sorry for him. A bizarre relic of early-'70s quasi-avant garde filmmaking, The Manipulator features the erstwhile child star as a deranged make-up man who is keeping an actress (Luana Anders) prisoner in an abandoned studio and proceeds to terrorize the living shit out of her in the guise of "directing" a production of Cyrano de Bergerac, in which Rooney (who naturally takes the part of Cyrano, complete with putty nose) has cast the hapless Anders as Roxanne. Rooney gives the part his all, which is admirable in some respects because he really goes off the deep end, but one can't help but feel that he's expending a great deal of effort on a project unworthy of his talents.

The film was written and directed by Yabo Yablonsky (making his first and only feature), who relies heavily on shock cuts, crazy camera angles and fish-eyed lenses in an attempt to freak the audience out. And if that's not enough, there are numerous scenes of Rooney talking to himself and/or dusty mannequins, some gratuitous nudity (of the male and female variety, but thankfully not of the Rooney variety), Rooney mimicking silent-movie slapstick (which is invariably sped up) and singing and dancing to "Chattanooga Choo Choo" (which is not), an extended flashback/orgy sequence in which the director saw fit to include a naked baby, and a score (by Gil Mellé) that practically constitutes synthesizer abuse. By the time the film gets to the interminable slow-motion chase sequence, we're just as eager for Anders to escape Rooney's clutches as she is. Even a brief interlude with Keenan Wynn as an old wino isn't enough to perk things up since Rooney dispatches him almost as soon as he appears. In the end, Anders locates Rooney's Achilles heel when she starts laughing at him, prompting Rooney to repeatedly beg, "Please don't laugh at me." Too late, buddy.

We believe, Lt. Brown, that men can be enemies without becoming beasts.

As he had done with The Secret Invasion seven years earlier, Roger Corman went the independent route to make 1971's Von Richthofen and Brown, which was his last film as a director before he turned to producing full-time. (He would return to the director's chair in 1990 to make Frankenstein Unbound, but that was a one-time deal.) Written by John William and Joyce Hooper Corrington (who may or may not have been a husband-and-wife team), the film tells the story of World War I flying ace Baron Manfred von Richthofen (John Phillip Law) and his far from friendly rivalry with Royal Canadian Air Force pilot Roy Brown (Don Stroud), who bucks tradition by refusing to fight a "gentleman's war," much to the chagrin of his commanding officer (Corin Redgrave).

The bread and butter of a film like this are the flying sequences, and Corman ensured that they would be spectacular by using actual vintage World War I airplanes. Unfortunately, the dogfight scenes get monotonous in a hurry, especially in the early going as we almost never see (or hear) the crashes when a plane is shot down. Later on, after both sides have given up the pretense of gentlemanly conduct, there are scenes of carnage and explosions aplenty when they attack each other's airfields. It is in these scenes that the aristocratic Von Richthofen is most starkly contrasted with the infinitely less heroic Hermann Goering (Barry Primus), who represents a dark future for Germany and one that he knows will have no place for him. Maybe that's why he willingly goes into combat one last time before the war can come to a close. After all, nothing befits a legend more than dying a hero's death.

Monday, July 27, 2009
Man, lacking the will to understand other men, became like the beasts.

When I first heard that Criterion was adding Cornel Wilde's rousing 1966 adventure The Naked Prey to the Collection last year, I have to admit I was somewhat skeptical. I remembered the film well from seeing it in my teens, but didn't think it was typical Criterion fare. Of course, who am I to judge whether something is fit to be added to the Collection or not? As long as a film is good -- and there are times when The Naked Prey approaches greatness -- then it has a rightful place in their "continuing series of important classic and contemporary films." (Whether films like The Rock and Armageddon have a place in it is open to debate, though.)

After logging time as a rugged Hollywood leading man (and appearing in such seminal film noirs as High Sierra, Leave Her to Heaven and The Big Combo), Wilde took up directing in the mid-'50s, but nothing in his filmography would have prepared audiences for The Naked Prey's graphic intensity. (For example, his previous film was the soapy Lancelot and Guinevere.) Working from an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Clint Johnston and Don Peters (who also co-wrote his next film, Beach Red), Wilde crafted an exciting story of survival and tenacity, with himself as the tenacious main attraction alongside some startling (and occasionally downright brutal) nature footage.

As the film opens, Wilde is leading an ivory-hunting safari (which he claims will be his "last time out") that runs afoul of a hostile African tribe after his jackass of a financier is unconscionably rude to them. After their party is captured, Wilde watches helplessly as his fellow hunters are gruesomely dispatched (the one that is caked with mud and then roasted alive on a spit is permanently lodged in my memory) before he himself is stripped bare and pursued by ten of the tribe's warriors, all of whom are experienced trackers. Wilde's will to survive is strong enough, though, that he puts up a formidable challenge, much to their leader's (Ken Gampu) mounting frustration.

Much like Nicolas Roeg's Walkabout, which came along five years later, The Naked Prey frequently contrasts its human characters with the wild animals around them. (This is especially true of the scenes of predators stalking and killing their prey, much like the tribesmen are doing with Wilde and Wilde himself tries to do with some of the smaller animals he encounters in order to get enough food to survive his ordeal.) Wilde also takes pains to include shots that emphasize his proximity to danger, which go a long way toward proving that he wasn't shooting on a sound stage. Some things you just can't fake (although I'm sure most animal rights activists would wish he had).

Tuesday, July 28, 2009
For those of you just joining us, today we're teaching poodles how to fly.

I'm a week late to celebrate the 20th anniversary of UHF (which was released on July 21, 1989), but that's all right because 20 years ago today the film was most likely slinking out of most of the theaters where it had been playing anyway, having been soundly trounced by its competition, which included such heavy hitters as the first Batman and Lethal Weapon 2. (I sure as heck didn't get to see it when it was in theaters.) Then of course there was Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which came out two months earlier and probably provided the impetus behind the opening sequence, an extended Raiders of the Lost Ark parody that has "Weird Al" Yankovic lusting after an idol (in this case, an Oscar statuette) that will forever be beyond his grasp. (Maybe if UHF had been a box-office success and Yankovic had been allowed to write and star in more movies, he would have eventually turned out his own Annie Hall, but that seems somewhat unlikely.)

As the film opens, Yankovic is caught daydreaming on the job and manages to get himself and his best friend David Bowe (who can be seen this summer playing Smithsonian Guard #1 in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen) fired, which puts him in dutch with his long-suffering girlfriend Victoria Jackson. Then fate steps in and Yankovic is given the chance to manage his shady uncle's low-rent UHF station, which leads to a bitter feud with rival network owner Kevin McCarthy (who revels in playing the bad guy), but it's really just a springboard for Yankovic and co-writer/director Jay Levey to pile on as many movie and TV references and parodies as they can, which turns out to be quite a few. (Not just Raiders, but also Close Encounters, The Beverly Hillbillies, Network, Wild Kingdom, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Gandhi, Rambo, The Shining and Gone with the Wind, among others.) They even find time to squeeze in a music video (for his "Money for Nothing" parody, complete with primitive computer animation).

UHF is also notable for giving a pre-Seinfeld Michael Richards his second-most indelible character (that of janitor-turned-wildly popular kids show host Stanley Spadowski) and hysterically funny supporting roles to Trinidad Silva (who doesn't need no stinking badgers), Gedde Watanabe (who goes from teaching karate to hosting Wheel of Fish), Billy Barty (as the world's shortest cameraman) and Emo Philips (as a supremely clumsy shop teacher). Who knows? Maybe it was never meant to be anything more than a cult favorite, but for those of us in the cult, it's a definite favorite.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009
I tend to skip a day now and again. You know what I mean?

Heretofore, the only film by Mike Leigh that I've ever seen was 1992's A Sense of History, a short written by and starring Jim Broadbent as an aged aristocrat looking back on his life of privilege and his dubious achievements. Now I've seen my second, which just so happens to be his follow-up, 1993's Naked, which follows a sharp-witted but off-putting drifter played by David Thewlis on an odyssey around London as he makes and breaks connections with a cross-section of humanity starting with his ex-girlfriend Lesley Sharp, who moved there from Manchester to be a career girl (a decision Thewlis thoroughly derides), and her close-mouthed flatmate Katrin Cartlidge, who quickly becomes hung up on him despite his complete disdain for her. Then there are his moments of casual violence while in the throes of passion, which also do little to disenchant her. Thewlis is a pussycat, though, compared to the amoral sadist played by Greg Cruttwell, who seems to be in a completely different film at first, but Leigh eventually finds a way to bring all of his protagonists together.

The heart of the film, though, is Thewlis's profanity-laden interactions with all of the characters Leigh throws his way. I was especially taken by the lonely security guard played by Peter Wight, who's fixated on the future (as opposed to the present, where he works a mind-numbingly tedious job) and whose worldview is challenged, but not rocked, by Thewlis's nihilistic philosophy and apocalyptic ramblings. Of course, not everyone he meets is so willing to have their views questioned and one offensive remark too many one night gets him tossed out of a potential resting place and onto the unforgiving streets, where he antagonizes the wrong people. Even when it would be in his best interest to clam up, he can't help but broadcast whatever withering observation pops into his head.

That all serves to make him a fascinating character, but he would be a bear of a man to live with -- and Sharp even mentions at one point that they had gone out for a year. It's a measure of her love for him that she's willing to take him back at the end of it all, but it turns out Thewlis has other plans. Or maybe he doesn't make plans because that would involve looking to the future, which he clearly doesn't believe in. Either way, once he sees an out he takes it, continuing his wanderings a little worse for wear than when he started, but still on his own terms. It's impossible to imagine him accepting any others.

Thursday, July 30, 2009
I've never seen a performance as convincing as yours.

It's been well over a decade since I last saw David Cronenberg's 1993 film of M. Butterfly and I have to confess I wasn't overly impressed by it at the time. Still, the fact that it remained unavailable on DVD for so long irked me, so I was thrilled when Warner Bros. finally brought it out earlier this year. For one thing, it gave me the perfect opportunity to reevaluate the film, which now seems like less of an aberration in Cronenberg's filmography (where is all the exploding viscera?) than it used to be. And for another, I was finally able to see it as Cronenberg intended. Even when there was a vogue for letterboxed movies on videocassette, M. Butterfly was never the kind of film that would receive that treatment.

Adapted for the screen by David Henry Hwang, based on his own Tony Award-winning play, the film stars Jeremy Irons (who had previously anchored Dead Ringers for Cronenberg) as an accountant working for the French embassy in Beijing in 1964 who becomes transfixed one night by an aria from Madama Butterfly performed by a local opera singer (John Lone in drag, like all traditional Peking Opera divas) and embarks upon a torrid affair without ever knowing (or perhaps deluding himself about the fact) that the woman he loves is a man. It's quite telling that Irons's wife (Barbara Sukowa) exits the picture fairly early on and that when Irons is promoted to vice consul by the ambassador (Ian Richardson), he rushes to tell Lone first. It is in this capacity that he begins providing confidential information about U.S. troop movements in Vietnam to Lone, who in turn passes it on to his controller (who is critical of his decadent, deviant lifestyle, but turns a mostly blind eye as long as he continues to get results). It's only when they're caught many years later that Irons is forced to come to terms with just who -- and what -- his beloved "Butterfly" really was.

While M. Butterfly worked like gangbusters on the stage, on film its thunder was stolen to a large degree by Neil Jordan's The Crying Game, which had come out the year before and apparently satiated the mainstream audience's hunger for films about men who initiate romances with women who turn out to be men. The comparison does Cronenberg's film an injustice, though, because he never tries to hide the fact that his leading lady is in fact a man. Where The Crying Game had shock value on its side (and a marketing campaign predicated on its secret), M. Butterfly tells a more subtle story about a love affair based entirely on a deception that both parties have to work to maintain, otherwise it falls apart. Maybe the problem for audiences in 1993 was that they didn't want to have to do that kind of heavy lifting themselves. Pity.

Friday, July 31, 2009
Why are so few of us left active, healthy and without personality disorders?

Back in March, when I saw Watchmen in theaters, I
wrote that I was looking forward to Zack Snyder's director's cut so I could see everything that had been left out to keep the running time down. Well, now I've seen the longer cut and I have to say the film plays a whole lot better with the extra 24 minutes added back in, especially since a lot of the restored scenes involve Hollis Mason, a.k.a. the first Nite Owl. Some may carp about the extension of an already-long film (according to Entertainment Weekly's reviewer, it feels "like a slog"), but the world of Watchmen is so rich and densely-layered that it completely justifies the extra time spent on it.

That said, this "Director's Cut" is still not quite complete since it lacks the Tales of the Black Freighter material, which will be incorporated into an "Ultimate Collector's Edition" that's being released as a five-disc set in December, but if you ask me that's just plain overkill. I don't want to get the Watchmen Motion Comic (which is included in the package) and I don't particularly feel the need to listen to Snyder blather over top of the film (even if he is joined by original artist Dave Gibbons), so between this release and the Black Freighter/Under the Hood DVD that preceded it, I'll be more than satisfied.

Back to June 2009 -- Onward to August 2009

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