Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
November 2009

Monday, November 2, 2009
You don't do anything as a wolf you wouldn't do as a man.

It's been 15 months since NBC pulled the plug on its ratings-challenged horror anthology series Fear Itself in favor of airing the Summer Olympics, which was very frustrating to me at the time because the next one in the lineup was "Something with Bite," the long-anticipated (by me, at least) werewolf episode. I thought they should have brought the show back last October, but alas I had to wait for the belated DVD release to catch up with the episode, although I've since learned that I could have just as easily seen it (and the four other unaired episodes)
streaming on FEARnet's website. Ah, well. Live and learn.

Directed by Ernest R. Dickerson and written by Max Landis (son of John and the co-writer of his Masters of Horror episode Deer Woman), "Something with Bite" stars Wendell Pierce as a tubby, lethargic veterinarian who's good with animals but whose home life isn't all it could be. (His wife Paula Jai Parker and son Meshach Peters both feel neglected and with good reason.) Then he gets bitten by an injured werewolf that's brought to his clinic when it's hit by a truck and, well, things start turning around for him. Not only does he develop a heightened sense of smell (along with the ability to transform into a large, hairy, ravenous beast at will), but he also becomes more assertive with his employees and attentive to his family. The only hitch is the series of apparent animal attacks that has been plaguing the city. The police detective on the case (Mark McCracken) believes they're the work of a man ("A disturbed man, but still a man.") and somehow comes to suspect Pierce, which puts him on the spot. After all, if he doesn't remember everything he does when he's a wolf, how does he know for sure that he didn't do them?

Maybe I'm a little biased because it's about werewolves, but I found this to be one of the better episodes of the series. Its take on werewolf lore was interesting (for instance, did you know that there are vegan werewolves?) and Landis leavened the script with enough humor to keep it from getting too dark. I also liked the design of the beast, which Dickerson was able to give a fair amount of screen time at the climax. Even in extreme closeup it managed to be convincing, which is quite an achievement given the budget constraints. In retrospect, it's a real shame NBC never got around to airing this last summer. I'm not saying it would have turned the tide and made Fear Itself into a ratings powerhouse, but it would have shown the naysayers that the series occasionally hit the target.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009
I feel I'm in the grip of a force that's driving me toward something unspeakably evil.

I don't whether it was the first horror anthology film or not, but 1945's Dead of Night, which was made by Ealing Studios, set the standard by which all subsequent ones are judged. The product of four directors and four writers (one of whom was H.G. Wells), the film tells five stories of varying degrees of creepiness held together by a supremely clever linking narrative, although the device of having the characters in it narrate the individual stories is one that has been used ad nauseam ever since. Basil Dearden directs the framing story, in which nervous architect Mervyn Johns arrives at the country home of Roland Culver and is distressed to find that he's living out a recurring dream he's been plagued with for years, right down to Culver's guests, each of whom in turn tell a macabre tale of a brush with the supernatural.

Dearden also handles the first story, in which racecar driver Anthony Baird tells of a premonition he had that prevented him from getting on a bus, which saved his life when it went off the road killing all on board. (One wonders whether the makers of Final Destination had it in the back of their minds when they conceived their film.) Then the reins get handed over to Alberto Cavalcanti, who directs the story Sally Ann Howes tells about a Christmas party she attended in a haunted house. Next up is Robert Hamer, who gives a real sense of style to the story of a haunted mirror Googie Withers buys for her fiancé Ralph Michael, who becomes obsessed with it to the point of distraction.

Speaking of distractions, some people find that Charles Crichton's contribution, a story about golfers Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne who are so competitive that one haunts the other from beyond the grave, is a little too slight, but I think it's a necessary breather before the final, and most famous, segment. Throughout the film psychiatrist Frederick Valk has taken pains to explain away each of the other guests' stories (as well as Johns's conviction that they're reenacting his dream), but in the end he tells the most chilling one (again directed by Cavalcanti), all about the psychological hold a dummy named Hugo has on ventriloquist Michael Redgrave. Like the framing story (which comes to a very neat conclusion), this is one that has been endlessly repeated and ripped off over the years, but it's worth catching in its original form. Even if you don't find the idea of an autonomous ventriloquist's dummy too frightening, Redgrave's sweaty performance really sells it.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009
We respect the rules, or we may as well give up.

So, this is how the world ends, neither with a bang nor a whimper, but rather with uncertainty, misery, and the high probability of death by exposure and/or starvation. At least that's how it goes according to Michael Haneke's 2003 film Time of the Wolf, which I first became aware of when it played the 2004 Philadelphia International Film Festival. If I had had sufficient foresight, I probably would have seen it then, but Haneke's reputation as a director to watch had yet to reach critical mass. Of course, that doesn't explain why I still haven't gotten around to Caché, but that is something I plan on correcting in the near future.

As for Time of the Wolf, it takes place during an unnamed calamity that spurs city dwellers Isabelle Huppert and Daniel Duval to stock up on some essentials and flee to the country with their children, Anaïs Demoustier and Lucas Biscombe. Unfortunately another family has beaten them to their cabin and the father has a gun, so the supposed safe haven where they were planning on waiting out the catastrophe instead puts them face to face (for the first of many times) with desperate people who will do whatever is necessary to hold onto what little they've got. After Duval is taken out of the picture, Huppert tries her best to provide for herself and her children, finding food and shelter where neither are easy to come by. If this means tagging along with a taciturn young thief (Hakim Taleb) or submitting to the arbitrary demands of a pompous, gun-toting opportunist (Olivier Gourmet) who has set up shop in an abandoned railroad station (where they hope to catch a train if they're still running), then so be it. Anything is better than just giving up.

This is, of course, not to say that Haneke offers us much hope. This film is bleak pretty much from the word go and it only gets bleaker as it goes on. Even so, there are some starkly beautiful images on display, with Haneke going the Stanley Kubrick route by shooting all of the night scenes by firelight. (One such tracking shot features Huppert and her children walking past a row of farm animals that have been killed and set ablaze -- an image both poetic and horrifying at the same time.) It may not be a comforting vision, but few people go into a Michael Haneke film expecting to be reassured about their place in the world. I know I sure don't.

Friday, November 6, 2009
More of this is true than you would believe.

Saw The Men Who Stare at Goats tonight. It was pretty funny, if ultimately on the slight side, but if all you want out of a movie is to have a good laugh you could do much worse this weekend. (For example, I noticed that Couples Retreat is still playing.) Directed by Grant Heslov (who previously co-wrote and produced George Clooney's Good Night, and Good Luck.), the film was written by Peter Straughan (who previously scripted the middling Simon Pegg vehicle How to Lose Friends & Alienate People) and based on the book by British journalist Jon Ronson (who previously tackled the subject on his documentary series The Crazy Rulers of the World). I'm not sure what that adds up to in terms of its veracity, but I'm perfectly willing to believe that the Pentagon once funded a program to train "psychic soldiers." Whether they actually had any powers or not is another matter entirely.

At any rate, the film is narrated by small-time journalist Ewan McGregor (who writes for the venerable Ann Arbor Daily Telegram) who's reached a crossroads in his life when he decides in the spring of 2003 that he should be doing something important -- like covering the Iraq War. There he hooks up with would-be government contractor George Clooney, who reveals that he was trained as a "remote viewer" back in the '80s and schools McGregor in the ways of being a "Jedi Warrior." Meanwhile the film flashes back to snapshots of his training for the "New Earth Army" under hippie-fied lieutenant colonel Jeff Bridges and rivalry with opportunistic recruit Kevin Spacey (whose initial psychic power is the ability to bend spoons). The film also features Stephen Root as the apparent crackpot who gives McGregor his first glimpse into something beyond the rational realm. And the music of Boston. "More Than a Feeling," indeed.

Saturday, November 7, 2009
Actions always have consequences.

As it's been out for over a month and shows no sign of coming to Bloomington anytime soon, I made the pilgrimage this afternoon up to Indianapolis to see A Serious Man, the latest film from the Coen Brothers (whose recent winning streak continues unabated). A pitch-black comedy about the testing of a man's faith (not to mention his sanity), A Serious Man stars relative unknown Michael Stuhlbarg as a physics professor up for tenure whose comfortable life slowly but surely starts to unravel for reasons he's never quite able to comprehend.

On the home front, his wife (Sari Lennick) is pushing for a divorce so she can remarry touchy-feely mensch Sy Ableman (Fred Melamed), his son (Aaron Wolff) -- who's just weeks away from his bar mitzvah -- keeps haranguing him about the lousy TV reception, and his teenage daughter (Jessica McManus) is constantly complaining because his freeloading brother (Richard Kind) keeps hogging the bathroom. On the professional side of things, not only is his tenure apparently in jeopardy thanks to some anonymous letters the board has been receiving, but he's faced with an ethical dilemma when a student tries to bribe him to change a failing grade. And on the spiritual front, he gets no help at all from the rabbis at his synagogue (the junior rabbi is completely hopeless and the senior rabbi merely tells him a pointless story) and can't even get face time with the well-respected Rabbi Marshak. Meanwhile, his legal bills are piling up, he's had to take up residence at a cheap motel and he's even worried that his neighbor has begun annexing part of his lawn. It's enough to make any man break down in front of his divorce lawyer (Adam Arkin), let alone while he's on the phone with Columbia House.

Much of the success of the film is due to the Coens' densely layered -- and extremely funny -- script and the attention to detail in the recreation of the period. (In an autobiographical touch, they set the film in 1967 in their home state of Minnesota.) Credit should also go to their frequent collaborators, director of photography Roger Deakins and composer Carter Burwell, who both turn in some of their work. And there's also a nice cameo by Michael Lerner, who was last seen as the overbearing Hollywood producer trying to elicit the "Barton Fink feeling" from John Turturro in the film of the same name. Now there's a guy who needs to be in more Coen Brothers movies.

Sunday, November 8, 2009
They'll have fish the size they've never seen before. Walking fish, who like human flesh.

Watched a double feature of movies about mad scientists turning men into fish creatures that were made at opposite ends of the '70s. The first, 1972's Zaat, is much more familiar to fans of MST3K as Blood Waters of Dr. Z, a title that never made much sense since the scientist of questionable sanity is actually named Dr. Leopold. I didn't have to watch the MST3K version, though, because Turner Classic Movies actually aired it uncut on TCM Underground last weekend. Now I no longer need to wonder what happened in the 20 minutes or so of footage that got cut to make way for the host segments and commercials -- and my life is all the fuller for that.

Written, produced and directed by one-time triple threat Don Barton, Zaat opens with two and a half solid minutes of underwater documentary footage, over which the good doctor (Marshall Grauer) expresses his kinship with the sea creatures he describes. "Oh, my friends of the deep," he says. "This day, this very day, I'll become one of you!" But first the audience must endure a folksy opening credits song that has the temerity to rhyme "sarcasm" with "sargassum." Then we have to watch Grauer wander aimlessly around the expansive laboratory set making preparations for his transformation. Once he finally sets things in motion, though, it is very speedy, indeed. Within mere moments he changes from a dumpy, disheveled fifty-something into a 6'5" scaly man-fish with patches of moss pre-attached to his not terribly convincing rubber monster suit. Then he grabs a spray bottle of his formula and heads out to share it with his fellow aquatic creatures.

Up until the 21-minute point the film is essentially a one-man (or one-fishman) show, but that changes once Barton introduces lazy sheriff Paul Galloway and the black marine biologist (Gerald Cruse) sent by the county to look into reports of walking catfish in the area. (Their relationship is hardly In the Heat of the Night material, though.) As the monstrous Dr. Leonard goes about killing the scoffers who denied him funding and stalks a beautiful blond artist, with whom he wants to mate after he's made her a fish creature like him, Cruse finds himself out of his depth and calls for backup in form of government agents Sanna Ringhaver and Dave Dickerson (who looks a bit like Dirk Benedict) of INPIT (which stands for something, but I couldn't tell you what). They're on the scene for a hell of a long time before they even begin to get a clue about what's been roaming around town mutilating people and trashing pharmacies. Meanwhile, Dr. Leopold proves to be something of a peeping tomcatfish and the director shows off his fondness for flash cuts.

With so many to choose from, the strangest scene in the film (which is entirely missing from the MST3K version) is probably the one where the sheriff investigates a scream and winds up sitting in on an entire folk song, which also manages to attract the creature (although for some reason it chooses not to attack the hippies). Afterwards the sheriff escorts them all to jail where they're locked up to keep them safe from the monster. I guess he doesn't subscribe to the notion that music soothes the savage beast.

In contrast, the savage beasts in 1979's Island of the Fishmen are pacified by a drug that is made for them by mad scientist Joseph Cotten, who must have gone to his agent in the late '70s and demanded that he be cast in a film that made his role in Lady Frankenstein look classy in comparison. Co-written and directed by Sergio Martino, Island of the Fishmen is very loosely based on H.P. Lovecraft's "The Shadows Over Innsmouth," although I'm sure this is one instance where going uncredited wouldn't have bothered him. Set in 1891, the films follows a sunken prison ship's doctor (Claudio Cassinelli) and some criminals who are washed ashore on the private, uncharted volcanic island owned by Richard Johnson, who isn't much of a host to the survivors. Cassinelli catches the eye of horseback-riding enthusiast Barbara Bach, though, and he sticks around long enough to find out all of the island's secrets, including where the fishmen come from.

Unlike Zaat, which puts its fish monster front and center and pretty much keeps him there, Island of the Fishmen is a lot more judicious in the early going, preferring to rely on extreme closeups of their faces and claws as they lash out at people. And the first time we see them en masse, gathered around Bach, who clearly has an unusual relationship with them, it's at night so we still don't get a good look at them. Martino saves that for the 44-minute mark, when one attacks Cassinelli by the light of day, but of course he's saved by Bach because then the movie would essentially be over and we haven't even met Joseph Cotten yet. In many ways, they look a lot like the Sleestaks from Land of the Lost, only with smaller eyes and rubberier skin. At least they're more menacing-looking than the fishified Dr. Leonard, but that's not saying much. In the end, Cassinelli has more to fear from Johnson and from the island itself, which seems poised to erupt at any minute. But hey, if that allows Martino to pad the running time with lots of volcano footage, then so be it.

Monday, November 9, 2009
My moments of glory are all in me head.

I first read about Stephen Frears's debut feature Gumshoe a few years back in a book called My First Movie, but it wasn't until TCM aired it this past weekend that I actually got a chance to see it. Written by Neville Smith, the film stars Albert Finney as a 31-year-old bingo announcer and aspiring comedian living in Liverpool who reads a lot of detective stories and decides on a whim to place as advert in the paper offering his services as a gumshoe. Little does he realize that this one act will land him in the middle of a perplexing mystery, which he narrates in typical hard-boiled fashion. It's a rather amiable comedy, albeit one with an underlying sense of menace (helped along by Andrew Lloyd Webber's original score) as Finney tries to figure out who hired him and what the job is supposed to be.

In the meantime, we also watch as he interacts with his sister-in-law Billie Whitelaw, who was actually his girl until his brother Frank Finlay took her away from him. Needless to say, theirs is a strained relationship, but it's clear that Whitelaw still has feelings for him as indicated by the ways she tries to help him. Janice Rule also shows up as a femme fatale-type with the improbable name of Mrs. Blankerscoon whose attempt to hire Finney for a job is rebuffed. At any rate, he has his hands full dodging persistent hood Fulton Mackay, who's after the money Finney was paid for a job he was originally supposed to do. Finney will have to keep his wits about him if he wants to get to the bottom of things, but in the end he turns out to be more resourceful than anybody could have imagined. I guess all that reading paid off.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009
You have to see it to believe it. Of course, I nearly choked.

After a decade as a staunch independent, Russ Meyer went Hollywood with 1970's Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, an enduring cult film that was scripted by none other than Roger Ebert (who went on to write two further films for Meyer, both times under a pseudonym). In no way a sequel to 1967's Valley of the Dolls, which it disassociates itself from right off the bat, Beyond the Valley follows a trio of pretty young things (Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers, Marcia McBroom) in a rock band who travel to Hollywood to try to make it. Their totally square manager (David Gurian) is against the idea but goes along with it anyway, which makes him kind of a fifth wheel when "teen tycoon of rock" John Lazar (who throws the most decadently outrageous parties imaginable) gets his hands on the girls and turns them into overnight successes. Of course, with success comes much excess and each of the girls handles it (or doesn't, as the case may be) in their own way.

In addition to the drugs and rock 'n' roll, there's a great deal of hooking up going on -- Read with greedy gigolo Michael Blodgett, McBroom with law student Harrison Page, Gurian with porn actress Edy Williams (although it must be said that he's most reluctant to stray from Read). Ebert and Meyer even throw in a lesbian encounter for Myers, who otherwise spends most of her time taking downers. And there's also a subplot of sorts about Read trying to collect part of her inheritance from her aunt (Phyllis Davis), but her uptight business manager (Duncan McLeod) does everything he can to try to block her claim. Meyer regular Charles Napier even shows up as Davis's old flame, but they have little to do apart from reignite their passions offscreen.

Because this is a Russ Meyer film, there is copious female nudity on display, as well as a fair bit of male nudity to help to make up for the fleeting gay stereotypes. (Of course, there's very little that is fleeting about Lazar's over-the-top performance, but we eventually find out the reason for it.) Creatively shot and propulsively edited, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls was a hit with audiences and a great success for Twentieth Century-Fox, but when Meyer's next film (1971's The Seven Minutes) was a flop he was sent packing. Unsurprisingly, he chose not to work for a major studio again.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009
If you're sexy, you can be sexy doing anything.

After the credits, the first thing one sees in Paul Morrissey's 1970 film Trash is a closeup of Joe Dallesandro's pimply butt as he's getting a blow job. It's as good an audience litmus test as any, I suppose. Essentially, if you're not turned off by it, then there's a good chance you won't be scandalized by anything else in the picture. Of course, chances are if you've gone to the trouble of seeking out Trash, you pretty much already know what you're in for.

Produced by Andy Warhol, Trash is the second part of a trilogy centered around the frequently naked Dallesandro that started with Flesh in 1968 and concluded with Heat in 1972. This time out Joe plays a heroin addict who's unable to get turned on, which frustrates any of a number of potential sex partners, starting with go-go dancer Geri Miller, who administers the opening blow job to negligible effect. Joe's impotence also bothers transvestite Holly Woodlawn, the compulsive trash-picker with whom he's staying, so he winds up out on the street in search of a hit, which isn't easy to come by.

Throughout the film Joe runs into a series of bizarre characters, including a rich acid freak (Andrea Feldman) who gives one of the most mannered performances I've ever seen in my life. She's nearly matched, though, by Jane Forth as the rich newlywed whose house Joe breaks into in search of something to steal. Strangely enough, she seems positively excited by the prospect of being raped but when her architect husband (Bruce Pecheur) comes home unexpectedly she has settle for watching him shower and shave his patchy beard. She's less interested in watching him shoot up, though, which makes two of us (especially since we've already seen him do it at Feldman's house).

Meanwhile, Holly brings home a high school kid with bread (Johnny Putnam) who's looking for "ups" and is dismayed when the only drug she can procure for him has to be administered by needle. There's also a bit of business about Holly's pregnant sister (Diane Podel), who was planning on giving up the baby for adoption until Holly offers to take it so she can get on welfare. Everything culminates in the scene where Holly and Joe play host to the welfare case worker (Michael Sklar) who holds their financial future in his hands. Maybe if Holly had been willing to part with the gaudy pair of high heels that catches Sklar's fancy, that might have worked out for them.

Friday, November 13, 2009
Your countess has a way of throwing herself at people.

Even though it's Friday the 13th, I had no intention of wasting my evening watching a Friday the 13th movie. (I saw the first couple when they came on television when I was younger, which is more than good enough for me.) Instead, I rented the 1971 cult horror movie Daughters of Darkness, which is the best film about lesbian vampires pretty much by default. (The IMDb rates 2004's Vampire Lesbian Kickboxers a full 1.2 points above it, but I remain skeptical since that only has 71 votes to this film's 963. Let's see how they do in a fair fight!)

One of many film versions of the story of Countess Bathory, who was said to have bathed in the blood of virgins to stay young, Daughters of Darkness was co-written and directed by Harry Kümel, who got the most out of the bleak Belgian locations. Set in the present day in and around the seaside resort of Ostend in the off-season, the film stars John Karlen and Danielle Ouimet as young newlyweds on their honeymoon who fall under the spell of Hungarian countess Delphine Seyrig and her faithful secretary Andrea Rau when all four wind up at the same empty, cavernous hotel. Before long, Seyrig and Rau are playing divide, seduce and conquer with the not-so-happy couple (seems Karlen has a penchant for rough sex that Ouimet didn't know about), waiting for the right moment to open a vein and take their sustenance. Kümel gives the film a slow build, teasing all of the erotic tension he can out of the situation before he finally allows it to explode into violence.

There's plenty of skin on display, too, especially in the uncut version which features both male and female frontal nudity. (When it was first released in the States, the film was shorn of some 12 minutes of nudity and violence in order to get an R rating.) I wouldn't say that's the main attraction -- Seyrig gives the most captivating performance in the whole film and she's the only one of the four who never takes her clothes off -- but it's certainly a selling point.

Saturday, November 14, 2009
They say that nightmares are dreams perverted.

In 1973, the same year that they collaborated with George Lucas on the script for American Graffiti, the husband-and-wife team of Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz co-wrote Messiah of Evil a.k.a. Dead People a.k.a. Revenge of the Screaming Dead. (Messiah of Evil is what it's called in the "Chilling Classics" box set, though, so that's the title I'm going with.) Directed by Huyck, it's an odd bird of a horror film about strange goings-on in an isolated beach community that starts off kinda creepy and keeps ratcheting up the weirdness until it reaches the breaking point and collapses in on itself. It's also far from the most assured directorial debut on record, but in many ways its slapped-together quality adds to its charm.

Marianna Hill stars as a young woman searching for her artist father, who moved to Point Dune to work but soon lost touch with her. Before she even gets there Hill is warned off by a gas station attendant, who gets mutilated by an unknown assailant for his troubles. She doesn't have much luck once she makes it to town, either, finding her father's house -- which is full of surreal and disorienting paintings (which are quite possibly the work of art director Jack Fisk) -- uninhabited and the residents of the town taciturn and unhelpful. She makes out better with urbane stranger Michael Greer, who collects old legends and is in the middle of getting the lowdown on the town from bug-eyed wino Elisha Cook Jr. when Hill finds him. Greer isn't alone, though, and his two companions (Anitra Ford and Joy Bang) don't take to Hill even after they forcibly move into her house. (Ford especially doesn't like it when Greer tries out his patented "unzip my vest" routine on Hill.)

Once all the major characters are in play it isn't long before Hyuck and Katz send them into town one-by-one to be picked off by the townspeople, who exhibit some of the characteristics of zombies (at the very least some of them are made up to look like they are) but aren't actually dead. They do like their meat raw, though, and make short work of Ford (who is cornered in an all-night supermarket) and Bang (who meets her fate in a movie theater where the feature is Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye). Meanwhile, Greer and Hill both start showing the symptoms of being corrupted by the town, including bleeding from the eye and the inability to feel pain. Finally, Hill finds her father (Royal Dano) -- or rather, her father finds her and fills her in on what Point Dune's whole deal is. Then he covers his face and hands with blue paint and, looking like a deranged Smurf, tries to kill her. What can I tell you? It's that kind of movie.

Sunday, November 15, 2009
We have the passion and the vision and the courage of knowing that we are right.

Back when I worked at Tower Records, every day I drove past an abortion clinic on my way to the store. This in and of itself was not an extraordinary event (as far as I was concerned it was simply another business on a stretch of road that was nothing but), but almost every Saturday I could count on seeing a group of protesters out on the sidewalk in front of the building with their signs and placards trying their best to be a nuisance. Occasionally I had the notion to leave for work 10-15 minutes earlier than usual so I could stop on the way and try to talk to some of them to find out why they were there and what good they thought they were doing by sacrificing their Saturday mornings in this fashion, but I never followed through on it. Frankly, it didn't seem like any good would come of it on either side if the confrontation.

This is not to say that I felt very strongly about the subject (for the record I'm pro-choice, if only because I feel that as a man I have no right to tell a woman what to do with her body), but I dislike intolerance of any kind and the anti-abortion movement has a great many intolerant people in it. Anybody looking for evidence of this need look no further than Tony Kaye's 2006 documentary Lake of Fire, a controversial and thought-provoking take on a most divisive issue. Produced, directed and photographed by Kaye (in stark black and white, which is most welcome when he gets around to showing graphic abortion footage), the film was shot and edited over the course of 18 years, and premiered at the 2006 Toronto International Film Festival before going into limited release a year later. That it took so long to find a distributor and never went wide isn't too surprising considering the subject matter, but it is a surprisingly evenhanded film that should be seen by people on both sides of the debate. (Not that I expect it will change anybody's mind, but it's helpful to put things in perspective sometimes.)

Over the course of its two-and-a-half-hour running time, the film covers everything from the protests surrounding the 20th anniversary of Roe Vs. Wade in 1993 to the ongoing clashes between Operation Rescue (and other activist groups) and Planned Parenthood, from the killing of doctors who perform abortions (and the chilling effect this has had on some practitioners) to the ideological conversion of Norma McCorvey (a.k.a. Jane Roe), who joined the pro-life movement later in life. McCorvey is one of a number of people Kaye interviewed for the film and he generally lets them speak for themselves, only occasionally betraying his presence behind the camera (and usually only when directly addressed by the interviewee). When you've got people referring to "the abortion holocaust" and saying that the killing of abortion doctors is "justifiable homicide," there's very little need to editorialize.

The same goes for the film's most moving sequence, which follows a 28-year-old nursing assistant as she goes through the entire process of terminating her pregnancy. Kaye films the actual procedure from a discreet distance (in contrast to the gruesome footage in the anti-abortion video he excerpted earlier), preferring to save his closeup for afterward, when the patient talks through her experience and breaks down on camera. It's a powerful moment to close the film on and Anne Dudley's mournful score drives home the point that abortion is the sort of thing that nobody treats lightly. As one interview subject asks, "How do you get these people to talk to each other?" How indeed?

Monday, November 16, 2009
What wouldn't we do not to lose what's ours?

There was enough of a buzz surrounding Michael Haneke's Caché when it was first released in 2005, and it received such good reviews that there's no reason why I should have given it a pass at the time, but that's just what I did -- and I've had to live with the consequences ever since. Good thing I'm willing to face up to my past mistakes, unlike Daniel Auteuil's character, the host of a popular public television program who starts receiving creepy videotapes showing the exterior of the house he shares with book editor Juliette Binoche and their preteen son Lester Makedonsky. The premise is similar to the opening scenes of David Lynch's Lost Highway, but whereas Lynch quickly branched off into other, stranger avenues, Haneke stays firmly rooted in reality as the tapes (and the gruesome drawings and postcards that begin arriving with them) chip away at Auteuil's long-dormant conscience. But what does he have to feel guilty about and why does he feel compelled to keep secrets from his wife and son?

Without giving too much away, Auteuil eventually receives a tape that leads him to the apartment of a mysterious Algerian man (Maurice Bénichou) who's cagey about the connection between them when a clearly agitated Auteuil shows up at his door. He also has a memorable confrontation with the man's son (Walid Afkir), but that only comes after an event that I wouldn't dream in a million years of spoiling. Haneke's films may be deliberately paced, but that only serves to make the shocks more effective when they do come. There's only in particular that make me wish I'd seen this with an audience, but we all have our regrets in life. Suffice it to say, I won't make the same mistake when his latest film, The White Ribbon, comes around.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009
Chris told me I was very sophisticated for my age and of course that just enchanted me.

The Sundance Channel is to be commended for the breadth of documentaries it shows. Case in point: the same week that it aired Lake of Fire, it also showed Chris & Don: A Love Story, which tells of the decades-spanning love affair between gay author Christopher Isherwood, whose seminal Berlin Stories became the basis of the musical Cabaret, and Don Bachardy, who was 30 years his junior and all of 18 when they met in 1952. What makes their story extraordinary is the fact that they remained a couple until Isherwood's death in 1986, which gives them a leg up on many heterosexual marriages. Take that, NOM!

Directed by Guido Santi & Tina Mascara, the film gives an overview of Isherwood's early life, following him from his youth and schooling in England to decadent Berlin in the years before the Nazis came to power, and then on to New York and California, where he eventually met Bachardy on a Santa Monica beach. The filmmakers had a lot of home movies to work with, which are augmented by contemporary interviews with Bachardy as well as such luminaries as John Boorman, Leslie Caron and Liza Minnelli. And they also got Michael York to read Isherwood's diary entries, which was most appropriate since he played Isherwood's stand-in in the film version of Cabaret.

Once they're established as a couple, the film shifts its focus to Bachardy's work as a portrait artist, which he took up largely because of Isherwood's encouragement. How fitting, then, that Isherwood became Bachardy's sole subject in the months leading up to his death. To not only watch the love of your life slowly deteriorate before your eyes, but also document it is probably more than some people could bear. That Bachardy was able to do so shows the depth of his love for the man who allowed him to become who he needed to be.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009
It's amazing how quickly things can go from bad to shitstorm.

I had originally planned on seeing Zombieland last month, but for whatever reason never got around to it. Now that it's leaving theaters this weekend (presumably so The Twilight Saga: New Moon can gobble up all the available screens) I figured it was time to nut up (as opposed to the alternative). Energetically directed by Ruben Fleischer from a fast-paced script by Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick, Zombieland gets a great deal of mileage out of simply watching its protagonists dispatch zombies in creative ways. What puts the gas in the tank, though, is the fact that they made sure their protagonists are interesting characters and not just a collection of quirks waiting to be potential zombie chow.

This is, of course, not to sat that they're bereft of their idiosyncrasies. Our narrator (Jesse Eisenberg) is a jittery obsessive-compulsive (and probable virgin) who keeps a running tally of his various hard-and-fast rules for surviving the zombie apocalypse. His unlikely partner (Woody Harrelson) is an impulsive zombie-killing fiend who's in search of the last edible Twinkie in America. And the sisters (Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin) they form an uneasy alliance with are headed for an amusement park where their family used to go before the whole world went to hell (one of many nods to Dawn of the Dead that the filmmakers make). Naturally, this is where the climax of the film takes place, an appropriate setting since Zombieland sounds like the name of an amusement park.

The film is so much fun, I wish I'd seen it with a larger audience, but I would be the first to admit that I had six full weeks in which to do so. And maybe if I'd caught it earlier in its run then the "surprise celebrity cameo" would have actually been a surprise to me. (Then again, anybody who visits the movie's IMDb page can plainly see that Bill Murray is listed as himself, so I guess it's not that much of a surprise.) I'll say one thing for the guy: this definitely redeems him for making Garfield.

Thursday, November 19, 2009
The Horseman comes, and tonight he comes for you!

Back when I had a bit more in the way of spending money I would occasionally see a film in theaters multiple times if I felt it was warranted. The practice probably started with Pulp Fiction, which I recall seeing with two different groups of friends, and reached its zenith in the summer of 1998, when I saw Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas three times in a row, but with the ever-narrowing window between theatrical and DVD releases I have for the most part given it up in recent years. (I'm fairly certain the last hurrah for me was The Two Towers, but I could be wrong about that.) One decade ago, however, I made a point of going back to see Tim Burton's Sleepy Hollow a second time simply so I could drink in the luscious visuals and foreboding atmosphere without having to worry about following the plot. After all, if Burton didn't worry about it, why should I?

Partly an adaptation of Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" and partly an homage to Hammer horror films, Sleepy Hollow gives the oft-told story a new slant by recasting Ichabod Crane as a New York City police constable and amateur pathologist whose squeamishness is played up by Burton's go-to alter ego Johnny Depp. In this version he's sent upstate by skeptical burgomaster Christopher Lee (making plain the Hammer connection) to investigate a series of mysterious beheadings taking place among the populace of Sleepy Hollow. There he uncovers a vast conspiracy involving many of the town's elders and even finds a love interest in the radiant Christina Ricci (who, more often than not, has to come to his rescue).

Filming in England afforded Burton the opportunity to work with such respected British thespians as Miranda Richardson, Michael Gambon, Richard Griffiths and Ian McDiarmid, along with regular collaborators like Jeffrey Jones, Michael Gough (another Hammer veteran who came out of retirement to play the town notary), Christopher Walken (who has no lines but still makes a great impression as the soon-to-be headless Hessian mercenary), Lisa Marie (as Ichabod's idealized mother) and an uncredited Martin Landau (who is one of the Headless Horseman's first victims). And then, sticking out like a sore thumb, is Casper Van Dien as Ichabod's romantic rival who may outmatch Depp physically but doesn't offer him much of a challenge in the acting department. Suffice it to say, when he meets his fate at the hands of the Horseman neither the movie nor the audience misses him.

Getting back to the plot, with all the bloody dismembering and other gruesome effects it's exactly the sort of thing one would expect a makeup effects artist like Kevin Yagher, who co-wrote the screen story with screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker and was once in line to direct the film, to come up with. Even with an uncredited assist from Tom Stoppard, who was brought in to tone down the violence, there's still quite a lot of blood shed on screen and a body count to rival most slasher films. Still, that didn't prevent it from winning the Academy Award for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, as well as nominations for cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (one of four he's received) and costume designer Colleen Atwood (who has been nominated seven times in all and won twice). And I would be remiss if I didn't mention Danny Elfman's lush score, which I consider to be one of his best. No matter what the project, Burton and Elfman always seem to bring out the best in each other.

Friday, November 20, 2009
You can tell folks better how terrible sin is if you know from your own experience.

John Huston was entering the homestretch of his life and career when he tackled Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood in 1979. Written for the screen by Benedict & Michael Fitzgerald, the film stars Brad Dourif as a serviceman recently discharged from the army who returns home to find the family farm abandoned and his hometown a shell of itself. With nothing to hold him there and plenty of money to burn, Dourif buys himself some new clothes (which, despite his initial protestations, make him look like a traveling preacher) and heads for the nearest city, where he declares, "I'm gonna do some things I ain't never done before." (And, in case you're wondering, learning proper grammar isn't one of them.)

Despite having been raised by his grandfather (John Huston, seen only in flashbacks), a preacher of the fire and brimstone variety, or perhaps because of it, Dourif gets a fire in his belly when he encounters a blind preacher (Harry Dean Stanton) on the street one day and immediately begins spreading the gospel of the Church of Truth without Christ, which he makes up on the spot. Meanwhile, Stanton's comely daughter (Amy Wright) sets her sights on Dourif, somehow thinking they'll be able to build a life together. Before committing herself, she probably should have found out whether he was even remotely interested in her. (Spoiler alert: he isn't.)

Having never read O'Connor's novel, I can't say one way or the other how faithful Huston's film is to it, but it's easy to imagine how some of the oddball characters that populate it could have stepped right off the page. In addition to those already mentioned, there's also Dan Shor as a simpleton from the sticks who follows Dourif around like a puppy, Ned Beatty as an opportunist who thinks he can make a buck off him and William Hickey as an impostor hired by Beatty to play the part when Dourif won't play ball. As Hickey soon finds out, though, Dourif doesn't believe what they say about imitation being the sincerest form of flattery. For a man who claims to be anti-religion, he sure believes in meting out Old Testament-style retribution.

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Saturday, November 21, 2009
The sight of krauts always seems like a provocation to me, lieutenant.

I may be a week late to the party, but last Saturday Roger Corman received an Honorary Academy Award, which has been a long time coming and must have been gratifying to him considering he mentored a number of previous Oscar-winning filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, Ron Howard and James Cameron. To mark the occasion, I borrowed his 1960 film Ski Troop Attack, which my library has as part of a 20-movie set called "War Movies: WWII Collection." The movies are five to a disc, so I wasn't expecting miracles, but the print and image quality was actually pretty good, with the exception of the stock footage of German tanks and troops that Corman edited in to give his bargain-basement production more scope.

Filmed on location in South Dakota (and made at the same time as the Corman-produced Beast from Haunted Cave), the film follows a five-man recon patrol scouting the German countryside in the winter of 1944 in advance of General Eisenhower's final push. The patrol is led by lieutenant Michael Forest, who likes to do things by the book and is constantly being dogged by sarcastic sergeant Frank Wolff, who's eager to fight and resents Forest's officer training. In order to differentiate between the three privates under them, screenwriter Charles B. Griffith makes one a Yankee (Wally Campo), one a Southerner (Richard Sinatra) and one a radio operator who gets killed early on so he doesn't have to be credited. The only other major character is the hausfrau (Sheila Noonan) whose cabin gets raided for supplies when their rations run out. She may cook a mean chicken, but beyond that she's far from the most hospitable hostess they could ask for.

Given Corman's knack for penny-pinching, it's no surprise that everybody in the cast also appeared in Beast from Haunted Cave (which was released the previous year). And to further save money Corman himself plays the distractingly dubbed commander of the German ski patrol in pursuit of our heroes when they set about destroying a strategic bridge being used to transport soldiers and supplies to the front. The battle scene that follows clearly illustrates how much Corman was stretching his budget, but you gotta admire the guy for trying to make a war film for pocket change.

If there are less yakuza, the world will be a better place.

For the longest time, as far as the films from Seijun Suzuki's heyday at Nikkatsu were concerned you had two sources: the Criterion Collection and Home Vision Entertainment. Now Kino can be added to the list since they released 1963's Detective Bureau 2-3: Go to Hell Bastards! back in the spring (and hopefully have more planned for the future). An exuberant action comedy, Detective Bureau stars Jo Shishido as a swaggering private detective who offers to be a plant for the police when two rival yakuza clans threaten to start a turf war. At first the plot is so bewildering that it has to constantly get rehashed by news reporters (that is, when the secondary characters aren't offering their own running commentary), but eventually things settle down enough for it to play out in a reasonably straightforward fashion. Of course, "straightforward" for Suzuki means plenty of madcap comedy from Shishido's assistants and some positively buffoonish behavior from the yakuza, most of whom are more like cartoons than real people. That's probably why Shishido can be so blasé about it when they begin picking each other off willy-nilly. The way they operate, it's practically a public service.

Sunday, November 22, 2009
If no one denounces the absurdity of this world then our descendants will keep suffering.

It has been several months since I watched my last movie from Jeff, so today I broke the embargo with 1966's Eleven Samurai, the final part of director Eiichi Kudo's "Samurai Revolution" trilogy. (I'll have to ask Jeff whether he has the other two or not. If he does, he may have just sent me this one because it's the best/most exciting.) Set during a time of relative peace, the film opens with a headstrong lord (Kantaro Suga) out hunting who crosses the border into another territory and recklessly kills a peasant and the neighboring lord. When the slain lord's chamberlain (Koji Nanbara) seeks justice from the shogunate, however, his clan is threatened with dissolution because Suga is the brother of the shogun and thus untouchable. Plus, he's under the protection of his own chamberlain (Ryutaro Otomo), who's one tough customer. What's a loyal subject to do? Well, if you're Kanbara, you approach an old friend (Isao Natsuyagi) and ask him to kill Suga. Natsuyagi agrees to do it, but says he'll need the help of ten men. You do the math.

For the most part, Eleven Samurai traffics in issues of loyalty, honor and sacrifice. Natsuyagi is willing to sacrifice his happy marriage to his childlike wife (Junko Miyazono) to protect the honor of the clan. A proud young woman (Keiko Okawa) takes her ailing brother's place among the eleven and demands equal treatment. And an errant samurai (Ko Nishimura) joins up with them so he can get revenge on the hateful Suga, who stands for all tyrannical lords in his eyes. Eventually they get their chance and the screen erupts in a thrilling ten-minute battle in the rain and mud (echoing the climactic battle in Seven Samurai) where they're outnumbered nearly five to one. With odds like those, even if they complete their objective it will be at the cost of most of their lives. That the men (and woman) are willing to lay them down is a testament to their loyalty. That the unsung Eiichi Kudo is able to make it exciting is a testament to his formidable skill as a filmmaker.

Two champions wrestling with each other's views. How do we judge the winner? You must choose.

Fans of movies with super-long titles have long known about 1967's Marat/Sade, which is short for The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. In actual fact, it was performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company under the direction of Peter Brook, who staged both the play (by Peter Weiss) and the subsequent film adaptation (by Adrian Mitchell), with pretty much the entire cast carried over from one to the other. And heading up that cast was Patrick Magee, who won a Tony Award for his role as the cagey de Sade, as did Glenda Jackson as the determined assassin of invalid Marat (Ian Richardson). The film is very in-your-face thanks to the mobile camerawork of cinematographer David Watkin, and Brook has directed his actors to deliver a good bit of their dialogue straight into the camera, especially herald Michael Williams, who addresses us like we're the members of the upper classes who have come to the asylum to watch the inmates put on a show. Of course, de Sade has much more than mere entertainment in mind for these so-called "distinguished visitors." For him, I don't think anything less than the complete overthrow of French society would do.

Monday, November 23, 2009
I decided the best way to crack this case was to follow the smartest man involved in it.

Curious things can happen when a novel is bought by a Hollywood studio, especially when all it wants to do is extract the plot and insert it into one of its existing series. This was the case in 1942 when RKO acquired the rights to Raymond Chandler's second novel Farewell, My Lovely and converted it into The Falcon Takes Over, the third outing for super-suave amateur detective Gay Lawrence (George Sanders). It was the first of Chandler's stories to reach the screen (although the world would have to wait until 1944's Murder, My Sweet for his signature character Philip Marlowe to do the same) and at least in the early going it's somewhat faithful to the novel, but the abbreviated running time (just over an hour) coupled with the need to shoehorn in some tired comic relief (mostly by Allen Jenkins as the Falcon's cowardly driver) doesn't leave director Irving Reis much time to linger over any plot points. He just ferries Sanders from place to place and from character to character until the sleuth has all the clues he needs to figure out who did what to whom and why.

Along the way Sanders picks up aspiring newspaper reporter Lynn Bari, who's looking for a scoop and hopes the story of escaped manslaughterer Moose Malloy (Ward Bond) will be her ticket to the big time, and has to dodge police inspector James Gleason, who would just as soon he stay out of police business. There's also a femme fatale of sorts in the form of Helen Gilbert, who has a Madeline Khan-like quality but only from certain angles, and an early, uncredited performance by Hans Conried as the effete Lindsey W. Marriot, who hires the Falcon under suspicious circumstances and proves to be a most untrustworthy client. After this entry, Sanders turned the Falcon series over to his brother Tom Conway (in the aptly titled The Falcon's Brother), who ran with it until 1946 but didn't have the benefit of any more Raymond Chandler stories. I'm sure that suited Chandler just fine.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009
Marlowe never sleeps until all's well with the world.

When the time came to bring Raymond Chandler's fourth novel The Lady in the Lake to the screen in 1947 a number of alterations were made to the story, some of which seem arbitrary and others come off as simply bizarre. First of all, the title lost a definite article, making it just Lady of the Lake, and Philip Marlowe somehow gained an extra "l" in his first name. Also, the time frame was moved to the days leading up to Christmas, which amounts to little more than a bunch of incongruous references to the holiday and a soundtrack filled with traditional songs and carols. The main creative decision, though, was director/star Robert Montgomery's attempt to replicate Chandler's first-person narrative style by shooting the majority of the action from Marlowe's point of view. It's the kind of stunt that possibly looked good on paper but winds up being as clumsy and distracting as Alfred Hitchcock's long-take experiment Rope, which came out the following year.

For one thing, save for a few brief moments where he's seen looking into a mirror or we catch a glimpse of his shadow on the wall, Montgomery performs his entire role in voice over. To make up for that, he and screenwriter Steve Fisher (who took over after Chandler left the project over creative differences) go a little nuts coming up with reasons for him to keep reaching a hand or two into frame. He starts out doing simple things like turning doorknobs, ringing doorbells, picking up random clues, and accepting cigarettes, drinks and guns when they're offered to him, but things get a little out of hand when he gets behind the wheel of a car or crawls away from it after getting into an accident. Also, the device forces the other actors to speak directly to the camera, which some of them handle better than others. For instance, crooked cop Lloyd Nolan and his superior Tom Tully do okay with it because their main function in the plot is to periodically interrogate Marlowe, but his client Audrey Totter (the editor of the sordid crime magazine Marlowe submits a story to) and her boss Leon Ames (whose missing wife spurs the initial investigation) wind up looking more uncomfortable with the whole thing. Maybe that's partly intentional since both of them are hiding things from Marlowe, but it's still off-putting to anybody watching the film.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009
I think the foxes from your side of the family take unnecessary risks.

Caught the first showing of Fantastic Mr. Fox in Bloomington. It was, in a word, fantastic, but it took some convincing to get me to fork over the $9.50 to find that out for myself. After being bombarded by the trailer over the past few months (I must have seen it at least a half dozen times) I was on the verge of skipping it altogether, largely because it was full of half-jokes that didn't seem all that funny the first time I heard them, let alone the fifth or sixth. Then the reviews started coming in and they were encouraging enough to get me to overlook the trailer, which is what I probably should have done in the first place, but what can I say? I've never liked having a movie shoved down my throat, even -- and especially -- if it's one I'm already inclined to see.

Thankfully, Fantastic Mr. Fox is as fleet on its feet as its title character, and it shows the sure hand of director Wes Anderson who, along with co-writer Noah Baumbach and animation director Mark Gustafson, ably brings Roald Dahl's story (about the epic battle of wits between a group of resourceful woodland creatures and the greedy farmers who want to force them off their land) to life. A lot of its success is due to the very tactile stop-motion animation (the bristling animal fur is a nice touch) and the phenomenal voice cast led by George Clooney and Meryl Streep as Mr. and Mrs. Fox. They're joined by Anderson film veterans Jason Schwartzman (as their alienated son), Bill Murray, Michael Gambon, Willem Dafoe and Owen Wilson (along with cameos by Brian Cox and Adrien Brody) and Wally Wolodarsky (who practically steals the film as the Fox family's live-in super), and Eric Anderson (as the visiting cousin that Schwartzman is intensely jealous of) in key supporting roles.

As is standard procedure for Anderson's films, the soundtrack is dotted with classic rock staples like "Heroes and Villains" and "I Get Around" by the Beach Boys and "Street Fighting Man" by the Rolling Stones, but instead of Mark Mothersbaugh he got Alexandre Desplat to provide the original music. (In fact, Mothersbaugh's last score for him was for 2004's The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, so I hope they haven't had a falling out.) And in deference to the story's origins, Anderson and Baumbach neatly keep the language PG by substituting the word "cuss" for any potential cuss words. I'm not sure whether Dahl would have approved of that, but it was amusing to me and that's what counts.

Thursday, November 26, 2009
Level with us, doctor. Have you created a monster?

For Thanksgiving this year I watched a double feature of two-headed man movies, both of which were released by AIP in the early '70s. First up was The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant from 1971, which stars Bruce Dern as a not quite level-headed scientist working outside the bounds of the medical establishment who's been neglecting his wife of six months (Munsters star Pat Priest) while he's been carrying out his head-transplant experiments on lab animals. Directed by Anthony M. Lanza, who started out as a production assistant on films like The World's Greatest Sinner and The Skydivers, the film also features Casey Kasem as Dern's old college buddy, who picks an inconvenient time to pay him a visit, and Berry Kroeger as Dern's aged assistant, who hopes to someday inherit the body of their caretaker's son, brawny simpleton John Bloom.

Plans change, though, when homicidal maniac Albert Cole escapes from the local mental hospital and terrorizes Dern and company in an extremely sadistic fashion. Eventually he gets his (in the stomach, no less) and winds up as the guinea pig in Dern's first human head transplant, which turns him and Bloom into a sideshow-worthy freak and causes them to go on a rampage. First they kill a young couple who were, ahem, necking, then they make short work of a trio of bikers out for a day of camping. Finally they double back to Dern's house (which was apparently decorated with leftovers from Roger Corman's Poe series), kidnap Priest and hole up in an abandoned mine which couldn't possibly have a cave-in to bring the story to a swift conclusion, could it? Naw.

The biggest problem with The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant is how unpleasant it sometimes is. This is much less of an issue with 1972's The Thing with Two Heads, which plays its premise more for laughs than anything else. Directed by Lee Frost, who started his career making nudie cuties with names like House on Bare Mountain and Hollywood's World of Flesh, the film stars Ray Milland as a bigoted transplant surgeon with a case of terminal chest cancer whose head winds up on the body of death-row inmate "Rosey" Grier -- an arrangement that neither of them is particularly thrilled with. And that goes double for organ rejection specialist Don Marshall, who was hired sight unseen by Milland before he realized that Marshall was black. Rounding out the cast are Roger Perry as the doctor who performs the initial transplant at Milland's urging and Chelsea Brown as Grier's girl, who's been working to clear his name.

Of the two films, The Thing with Two Hands clearly had the larger budget, which translates into somewhat better special effects (the first time we see it during the transplant scene, Milland's fake head actually looks pretty good) and overall production values. It even boasts a two-headed gorilla, which definitely trumps the two-headed monkey from the first film. (Incidentally, the gorilla suit was made and worn by Rick Baker, who would go on to be something of an ape specialist.) On the minus side, there's an interminable chase scene where Grier and Marshall (who has been taken hostage) commandeer a dirt bike and spend eight full minutes evading buffoonish policemen who keep driving their cars into ravines and rolling down steep hills. A lot less of that would have gone a long way. For all that, though, the film still manages to be campy fun. After all, where else are you going to hear a line like "Cut down the dosage of barbital to the black head"?

Friday, November 27, 2009
If you didn't sweat so much, nobody'd take you for a landlord. You could pass for a human being.

One of the key figures in Peter Biskind's book Easy Riders, Raging Bulls and the documentary A Decade Under the Influence is editor-turned-director Hal Ashby, whose films include such '70s classics as Harold and Maude, The Last Detail and Shampoo, all of which I've seen, but they're the only films of his I've seen. I'm fixing to correct that now, starting with his directorial debut, 1970's The Landlord, which was shown on TCM last week. Based on the novel by Kristin Hunter, the film was written for the screen by Bill Gunn (who went on to write, direct and star in the singular Ganga & Hess, another film I've long wanted to catch up with) and stars Beau Bridges as a moneyed layabout who decides pretty much on a whim to buy a tenement house in a black neighborhood so he can gut it and redecorate it to suit his own tastes. What he doesn't count on is getting involved in the lives of the proud but poor residents who are understandably hostile to the honky who shows up on their doorstep out of the blue and announces that he's the new landlord.

This development doesn't sit well with Bridges's blue-blooded family, either, especially his neglectful mother (Lee Grant, who was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for her role) and autocratic father (Walter Brooke), who have no compunction about voicing their disapproval of what they condescendingly refer to as his "real estate venture." As for the residents who aren't eager to vacate their humble homes, their ranks include headstrong fortune teller Pearl Bailey, who greets Bridges with a shotgun, hairdresser Diana Sands and her activist husband Louis Gossett Jr., and professor Melvin Stewart, who is engaged in educating the next generation of African Americans. Then a funny thing happens: Bridges meets and falls with a multiracial dancer and artist (Marki Bey), the product of a mixed marriage who points the way to a middle ground for him. If only things were that simple.

Coming from an established editor like Ashby (who won his only Academy Award for editing In the Heat of the Night for Norman Jewison, who was his producer on this film), it's no surprise that The Landlord uses complex cross-cutting at times, most notably during the opening sequence. It settles down a bit after that, but the style crops up again in the middle after Bridges attends a rent party in his honor and overindulges, which leads to some unexpected consequences. Speaking of which, I wonder if Robert Klein (who plays the nebbishy fiancé of Bridges's socialite sister Susan Anspach) ever gets any grief over the scene where he appears in blackface at one of Grant's benefits. Even in context, that sort of thing is hard to justify.

Only man among living things says prayers. Or needs to.

For the followup to his 1966 film The Naked Prey, Cornel Wilde tackled the World War II drama Beach Red, which was a pretty graphic war film for its time. Of course, when it was released in 1967 America's involvement in Vietnam was nearly at its peak, so giving audiences an unvarnished view of the brutality of war must have been at the forefront of his mind. In addition to producing and directing the film, Wilde also co-wrote the screenplay and stars as a Marine captain who leads an assault on an unnamed Pacific island against the entrenched Japanese forces. What sets it apart from its contemporaries is the way it attempts to humanize the enemy troops and commanders, to the point of even giving some of them their own flashbacks to their families, something that is usually reserved for "our side" alone and serves to remind viewers that there are no actual good guys and bad guys in war, just soldiers fighting on opposite sides.

On the American side, the soldiers we spend the most time with are Wilde's gung-ho sergeant Rip Torn and a few of the privates under their command. There's unrefined country boy Burr DeBenning, who hails from a one-store town, minister's son Patrick Wolfe, who has many doubts about his readiness for battle, and Jaime Sánchez (who was soon to join The Wild Bunch), a pragmatist who's looking to get a minor wound so that he can be taken out of action. Off and on throughout the film we hear their thoughts in voice over (along with Wilde's) and cut to still photographs that represent their memories whenever they're in a contemplative frame of mind. That isn't often, though, because the action is pretty relentless. In fact, at times the film plays like one long battle scene. And I can only speculate, but the moment where one soldier has his arm blown off must have been pretty shocking to audiences in 1967. That was also the year of Bonnie and Clyde, though, so soon the desensitization would begin.

Saturday, November 28, 2009
We all know how we're gonna die, baby. We're going to crash and burn.

The next full moon is still a few days away, but this morning's TCM Underground movie was Psychomania, a British biker movie from 1973 with a supernatural twist, so I figured it would pair up nicely with an American biker movie from 1971 called Werewolves on Wheels, which I got from Plan 9. Co-written and directed by Michel Levesque, who directed one more feature before becoming the art director for Paul Bartel's Cannonball! and a number of Russ Meyer films, Werewolves on Wheels is about a motorcycle gang called the Devil's Advocates (which means, I suppose, that they're in favor of him), which is made up of a dozen or so interchangeable hairy, bearded savages (who, let's face it, are halfway to being werewolves before the story even begins) who decide they want to meet the big man himself and go on a field trip to the local Satanic monastery.

Turns out this is a bad idea because soon after their arrival some hooded monks surround them and offer them an unholy communion of drugged wine and bread, which the gang readily partakes of. Once they've all conked out, high priest Severn Darden (late of The President's Analyst and Vanishing Point) invokes his master with the sacrifice of a black cat and calls biker gang leader Steve Oliver's old lady (D.J. Anderson) to be the Bride of Satan, which apparently involves her seductively wrapping a snake around her naked body and playing with a skull while Darden gestures lewdly with a phallic statue. Just in time Oliver comes out of his drugged stupor, rouses a few of his fellow bikers and they interrupt the ceremony and bust some heads, but not before having their faces marked by the falling monks.

With a stark naked Anderson in tow the gang hightails it out of there, but soon enough their resident mystic (Duece Berry), who goes by the name Tarot (which gets pronounced every which way but the right one), realizes that something is amiss with their vibes or something. This is confirmed over the next couple nights as various gang members (and their old ladies) start getting picked off one by one by vicious killers with hairy paws and a penchant for hiding in the shadows until the final reel. When they finally do show themselves it's no surprise who they turn out to be (after all, this isn't a film about lycanthropic unicyclists) and the remaining human members of the gang decide that fire is the best weapon available to them. This provides an important lesson to all would-be werewolves: if you're ever set on fire, "Stop, Drop and Roll" doesn't really work if you insist on rolling over a roaring campfire while trying to put yourself out.

Their furry former compatriots dispatched, Tarot leads the surviving Devil's Advocates back to the monastery to get their revenge, but in an incredible twist it turns out that they're the monks they were planning on attacking! Or something! I don't know exactly, the ending is all kinds of confusing. All I know is the gang rolls on under the closing credits and maybe the rest of them have been turned into werewolves and maybe they haven't. Maybe Levesque and his co-writer David M. Kaufman clarify the ending on the commentary track, but I don't know whether I'll have time to listen to it before the DVD has to go back. Then again, I've already spent 80 minutes watching a movie called Werewolves on Wheels. Clearly I don't put too much of a premium on my time.

As for Psychomania, it's about a gang of bikers who call themselves the Living Dead (and who all wear matching skull-shaped helmets, which probably seemed cooler-looking in theory) who commit suicide one by one and then will themselves back from the dead, which is such a neat trick the film never really explains how they do it. Directed by Don Sharp (who helmed a few films for Hammer back in the '60s), the film stars Nicky Henson (who's probably best known for playing the guest on Fawlty Towers who sneaks a girl into his single room) as the leader of the gang who's trying to push a suicide pact on his girlfriend (Mary Larkin), who likes terrorizing the locals alongside him but balks at the idea of killing herself. Once he's proven that he can do it, though, the other members of the gang quickly follow suit, bumping themselves off in increasingly absurd fashions.

The film isn't entirely about these reckless youths, though. It also has time for Beryl Reid as Henson's doting mother, whose home is a mod-lovers dream, and George Sanders (in his final screen appearance) as her faithful butler Shadwell, who shares her knowledge of the occult. And there's also Robert Hardy as the police inspector who's on the case when Henson and company start bumping people off willy-nilly -- that is, when they aren't bumming around the Seven Witches, a kind of sub-Stonehengian monument where they initially buried Henson (sitting up on his motorcycle, no less). He's the only one who actually has to go into the ground before coming back, though, which sure saves on funeral expenses for their bereaved families.

Oh, and have I mentioned the frogs? Well, there's quite a bit to do with frogs in this movie. Early on we watch as Henson catches a frog, which he takes home and deposits in a glass bowl. Then Sanders gives him a pendant with a frog on it for protection, and Sanders is also seen wearing a pinkie ring with a frog design on it. And finally, one of the characters actually turns into a frog for some reason which is never made entirely clear, but in this case there is no commentary track for me to consult for the explanation. I suppose I'll just always have to wonder.

Harold does have his little eccentric moments.

Even if Hal Ashby had never directed another film after 1971's Harold and Maude, his place in film history would be secure. One of the quintessential cult movies of the '70s, Harold and Maude ran for years in some theaters and cemented Ashby's reputation as a filmmaker who took chances on risky material (in this case a script by untried screenwriter Colin Higgins) and made it pay off. The unlikely story of the unlikely friendship that springs up between a young man who's obsessed with death and an octogenarian who lives life to the fullest, it's a one-of-a-kind film that can still surprise and enchant audiences 38 years later.

When we first meet Harold (Bud Cort), he's spending most of his time devising elaborate fake suicides in a futile attempt to get the attention of his oblivious mother (Vivian Pickles). In between visits to his psychiatrist, a strict Freudian who is unable to get anything out of him, Harold also attends funerals and even buys a used hearse to tool around in. It's at one of these services that he meets Maude (Ruth Gordon), a free spirit who's always on the lookout for new experiences. Soon enough they're spending lots of time together and Maude is teaching Harold how to actually live (which is a big change from his usual preoccupations). In the end she even has to teach him how to live without her since she's determined that eight decades is long enough for anybody to spend on this planet -- especially with all the things she's gone through -- but the ability to meet life (and death) on your own terms is a skill that won't easily be forgotten.

Sunday, November 29, 2009
I hate this motherfucking chickenshit detail.

After making two films in a row centered around privileged young scions of the establishment making their way into the real world, Hal Ashby needed a change of pace. He couldn't have asked for a better one than 1973's The Last Detail, a profane comedy about two Navy lifers between assignments who are tasked with transporting a seaman from Norfolk to Portsmouth to serve out an eight-year prison sentence and decide along the way to show the young man a good time. Based on the novel by Darryl Ponicsan and an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Robert Towne, the film stars Jack Nicholson and Otis Young as the petty officers who pull the shit detail and Randy Quaid as the petty thief they initially see as a burden and an annoyance and later attempt to bring out of himself.

It's no surprise that Nicholson and Quaid were nominated for their performances (for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively) since they're at the absolute top of their game, and Young matches them every step of the way. The film also features early appearances by Carol Kane (as the whore Quaid loses his virginity to), Michael Moriarty (as the Marine who gives Nicholson and Young a hard time when they finally bring him in), and, in smaller roles, Nancy Allen and Gilda Radner (making her screen debut). The script is full of quotable dialogue, even if the majority of it can't be repeated in polite company, but I just love this early exchange between Young and Clifton James as the master-at-arms who gives them their assignment. It follows the revelation that Quaid is getting eight years and a dishonorable discharge for attempting to steal $40:
YOUNG: You're shittin' me.
JAMES: I wouldn't shit you. You're my favorite turd.
Kind of says it all, doesn't it?

I take a better picture now, but business hasn't been as good as it used to be.

Raymond Chandler published The Long Goodbye, his penultimate Philip Marlowe novel, in 1953. When Robert Altman brought it to the screen 20 years later he took the cockeyed approach of setting the story in the present but keeping Marlowe decidedly -- and defiantly -- anachronistic. Despite living in a Los Angeles obsessed with health food, all-night grocery stores and yoga, he still smokes up a storm, drives a vintage car and has principles that can't be shaken. Altman also had a terrific script by Leigh Brackett, who had previously adapted Chandler's The Big Sleep, to work with and a lead actor (Elliott Gould) who could embody the very specific kind of character he was trying to evoke.

As if to announce right off the bat that this isn't your typical Marlowe, Altman introduces Gould being woken up in the middle of the night by his very assertive tabby, which is so picky it will only eat a certain brand of cat food. After he fails to procure it, the cat walks out on him, which Gould doesn't even have a chance to brood over before an old friend (Jim Bouton) arrives at his door and asks him for a ride to Tijuana. That simple act of friendship gets Gould into a heap of trouble when Bouton's wife turns up dead and Bouton is the prime suspect. Gould's refusal to cooperate with the police lands him in jail, but he eventually gets released when it comes out that Bouton has committed suicide in Mexico. Case closed.

Almost immediately, Gould is hired by beautiful socialite Nina Van Pallandt to find her writer husband Sterling Hayden, a notorious drunk who has been missing for a week. Gould eventually tracks him down at the private clinic of quack doctor Henry Gibson, who attempts to shake Hayden down for $4,400 and proves to be very persistent and persuasive. That's mere pocket change, though, compared to what ruthless gangster Mark Rydell (playing a character who was entirely invented for the film) believes Gould is holding out on him. (Turns out Bouton was transporting $350,000 for Rydell and that went missing when Bouton did, and since Gould is one who drove him to Mexico, well, what else is Rydell to think?) So case not closed after all.

Altman and Brackett take a great many liberties with Chandler's story, especially in the latter going when it plays out in a vastly different fashion, but they do manage to bring out the brutal violence that earlier adaptations made in a more genteel age had to leave out. (Once seen, the moment where Rydell disfigures his girlfriend's face with a Coke bottle in order to convince Gould that he means business is hard to forget.) And Marlowe's verbal dexterity and sarcasm is kept intact, even if Gould is given to throwing most of his lines away. If you pay attention, though (and if there was ever a film where it's imperative that you pay attention, it is this one), it is possible to catch them.

Monday, November 30, 2009
Don't you people ever fight back?

Long before Heathers was even a gleam in Daniel Waters's eye, there was a cult movie called Massacre at Central High. Made in 1976, the film was written and directed by Rene Daalder, a Dutch filmmaker making his English-language debut with what producers thought would be a straightforward exploitation picture but instead turned out to be much more than that. The story concerns a high school that is ruled with an iron fist by a quartet of upper-class bullies and the new kid in town who decides to do something about them. (Sound familiar?) And if anyone has any doubts about how serious he is, there are no less than three explosions during the opening credits which turn out to be harbingers of his handiwork to come.

The cast, which is made up almost entirely of unknowns, is led by Derrel Maury as the lone wolf whose arrival at Central High sets him on a collision course with the forces of tyranny at work at the school. Unfortunately this also pits him against his best friend (Andrew Stevens), who's part of the "little-league Gestapo" but doesn't hold with the strong-arm tactics of smarmy leader Ray Underwood or his cronies Steve Bond and Damon Douglas. They keep the entire student population under their collective thumb, but give special attention to misfits like Robert Carradine (who's caught painting a swastika on Underwood's locker), Rex Steven Sikes (whose junker of a car is considered an eyesore), Dennis Kort (the brainy librarian's assistant who wears a hearing aid), and Cheryl "Rainbeaux" Smith and Lani O'Grady (two proto-lesbians whose names are Mary and Jane). Seems the one person they leave alone is nice girl Kimberly Beck and that's only because she's Stevens's girlfriend. Otherwise she would be fair game and she knows it.

Once all the characters are in play, Maury waits for Underwood and company to go too far before making his first move and gets his chance when they attempt to rape Smith and O'Grady. In a burst of violence he humiliates the three bullies (Stevens pointedly declines to take part in the sexual assault), but they get their revenge by crippling him. That's the point where things get cranked up a notch and Maury starts arranging for a series of fatal accidents to befall the oppressors, but this creates a power vacuum which others try to fill with disastrous consequences. As far as Maury is concerned, anybody who tries to exert their influence over others is just asking to be toppled from their perch. (Significantly, we never see any teachers or parents or authority figures of any kind until the very end of the picture.)

I've wanted to see Massacre at Central High ever since I read about it in Danny Peary's Cult Movies 2, but it's been incredibly hard to pin down since it's never been released on DVD. I thought I was going to get my chance this past spring since Turner Classic Movies was all set to air it on the TCM Underground in April, but at the last minute they pulled it from the schedule without any explanation. Thankfully, my good friend Joe Blevins stepped into the breach and loaned me his copy, which allowed me to see the film in all its ragged glory. In a strange way that's probably for the best. If this Massacre were ever tarted up and presented in a pristine print it just wouldn't seem right.

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