Craig J. Clark Watches a Lot of Movies
September 2010

Wednesday, September 1, 2010
Who knows where a thing like this begins?

In 1950, the same year he made the Best Picture-winning All About Eve, Joseph L. Mankiewicz co-wrote and directed the racially charged film noir No Way Out, which marked the dynamic screen debut of Sidney Poitier. In it, Poitier plays an internist who runs afoul of racist criminal Richard Widmark, who blames Poitier when his brother dies while in the young doctor's care. A simple autopsy would clear him of any wrongdoing, but Widmark vindictively refuses to give permission for one, prompting Poitier and the hospital's chief resident (Stephen McNally) to appeal to the dead man's ex-wife (Linda Darnell) to get Widmark to change his mind. His is a mind that isn't easily changed, though, particularly when it comes to anybody with the wrong color skin.

For a film made by a Hollywood studio in 1950, No Way Out is unsparing in its depiction of racial tensions and its dialogue is particularly raw. It seems like just about every hateful epithet for a black person is thrown around at least once, and just when you think they've run out they turn up another one. While many of them may not be in common usage today, the attitudes behind them are still very much in evidence if you know where to look. Remarkable how a film made 60 years ago still feels like it has some relevance to today's society. Would that were not so.

Thursday, September 2, 2010
It is remarkable how few people trust the police in any country.

As is my custom, I knew next to nothing about 1953's The Man Between going into it tonight. The only things I knew for sure were that it was directed by Carol Reed, it starred James Mason (who had previously teamed up with Reed for 1947's Odd Man Out), and -- like Reed's The Third Man -- it was a thriller set in post-war Europe. Not a lot to go on, but I was interested enough to tape it off TCM a couple months back. Now that I've seen it, I can fill in some of the details. For example, the setting is a divided Berlin before the Wall was built, which means people are still able to come and go fairly freely. There are exceptions, though, like the slippery character played by Mason, who would like to resettle in the West but is unable to thanks to his shady past. He sees his chance to overcome that when he meets naïve British tourist Claire Bloom, who's visiting her older brother (Geoffrey Toone), who's stationed in Berlin, and his German wife (Hildegard Knef), who knew Mason before the war and distrusts his motives. Perhaps not as hard-hitting as its more famous predecessor, but it's a cracking good thriller nonetheless.

Friday, September 3, 2010
All right, stand there. It's your funeral, not mine.

Had a very manly double feature today, starting with 1957's Men in War, a Korean War film directed by Anthony Mann. The film, which is actually based on a World War II novel called Day Without End, stars Robert Ryan as a lieutenant in charge of a platoon that has been outflanked by the enemy and thus finds itself in hostile territory and without transportation. Aldo Ray co-stars as a surly sergeant from another regiment who pulls up in a jeep with a shell-shocked colonel in the passenger seat and is less than thrilled when Ryan commandeers it to haul his platoon's equipment. As the film progresses, Ryan tries to lead his men (whose ranks include Vic Morrow, James Edwards and L.Q. Jones) to safety and Ray shows him up every step of the way, demonstrating what it takes to outwit the enemy and prompting Ryan to shake his head in disgust. "God help us if it takes your kind to win this war," he says and you know Ryan means it. Of course, as history would show, nobody really "won" the Korean War. They just stopped fighting.

My second film of the day was Carol Reed's The Running Man, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the Stephen King novel/Arnold Schwarzenegger film of the same name. Rather, Reed's film is about a bitter Brit (Laurence Harvey) who fakes his death so his American wife (Lee Remick) can collect the insurance and they can go away together. Their first stop is Spain, where Harvey poses as an Australian millionaire and Remick runs into the insurance investigator (Alan Bates) who spoke with her after Harvey's memorial service. Of course, they don't know whether he's there in an official capacity or not, but he does have a habit of asking a lot of questions.

As he did in The Third Man, The Man Between and Our Man in Havana, Reed makes the most of his Spanish locations, even setting one key sequence in the vicinity of Gibraltar. He also cast Luis Buñuel regular Fernando Rey in a small role as a police official, but for the most part the drama is played out by the three principals. Of them, Bates has the trickiest role because we're not sure if anything he says can be taken at face value or not. And as time goes on -- and Harvey announces his intention to become a serial insurance fraud -- Remick finds herself increasingly conflicted about being his accessory. As Bates advises her, at some point you've got to stop.

Saturday, September 4, 2010
People don't know want they don't want until after they don't have it to worry about.

I realize I've been going overboard with the double features lately, but there's an ever-growing list of movies that I want to see and only so many hours in the day, so doubling up when I can seems like the best solution. Today I paired up two cult movies from 1977 -- Andy Warhol's Bad and Outrageous! -- to find out which one is more provocative after a third of a century. As is the case with all films with Andy Warhol's in the title, Bad wasn't actually directed by Warhol, but rather was entrusted to Factory cohort Jed Johnson, who had previously edited a number of Paul Morrissey's films (among other things). In many ways, the film plays like the Andy Warhol version of a John Waters film since it features Carroll Baker (star of the notorious Baby Doll) as a homemaker who does electrolysis treatments out of her home and runs a service on the side where she hires out women to commit despicable acts ranging from petty vandalism to cold-blooded murder. Anything is fair game for Baker and her girls -- as long as the price is right.

To squeeze more money out of her employees, Baker also takes them in as boarders (at the exorbitant rate of $75 a day), which is where drifter Perry King enters the picture. A kleptomaniac by nature and assassin by trade, King is recommended to Baker and winds up hanging around the house for days on end, annoying the living shit out of her and constantly going through her things. She's also stuck with her housebound daughter-in-law (Susan Tyrrell) and her baby, but at least she gets Tyrrell's welfare check. Still, there's rarely a moment's peace what with the phone ringing off the hook and people coming at all hours of the day or night to get their electrolysis treatments, not to mention the nosy cop wondering when he's going to get his payoff. Then there are her girls, who aren't always one-hundred percent reliable, putting off some jobs and failing to follow instructions on others. One even comes home empty-handed when the client gets impatient and does the job for her. (This is the infamous baby thrown out the window scene, which leads one passerby to point to the bloody mess and tell her own unruly child: "That's what I'm going to do to you if you don't shut up.")

In the end, it turns out not everyone in Baker's orbit is as amoral and reprehensible as she is. Tyrrell, for one, makes a stand of a sort when she learns the full nature of Baker's business, and after spending a night out for once she comes to the conclusion that people are sick. "The more you see 'em, the sicker they look," she says. Amen, sister.

This statement is echoed at the end of Outrageous! when female impersonator Craig Russell tells his best friend, mentally unstable writer Hollis McLaren, "You're alive and sick and living in New York like eight million other people." Of course, at the start of the film they're both a long way from New York, so it's up to writer/director Richard Benner to get them there from snowy Toronto, where Russell is a fat, depressed hairdresser and closet drag queen who takes McLaren in after she escapes from the mental hospital where she's been confined for eight years. With some encouragement from Russell, McLaren tries putting her journals in order (she collects the stories of crazy people) and with some encouragement from McLaren, Russell decides to let his inner Tallulah (as in Bankhead) out and auditions to be the M.C. at a drag club. This eventually costs him his hairdressing job but leads him to New York, where he attempts to make a name for himself as a female impersonator, while McLaren stays behind in Toronto and battles her personal demons. To say that Russell has a bit more success than she does is a bit of an understatement.

As he grows more confident, and adds more Hollywood stars to his repertoire, Russell blossoms from the solitary man who does Tallulah for an audience of one to someone who can enthrall a club full of men with his impressions of Bette Davis, Carol Channing, Marlene Dietrich, Ella Fitzgerald, Ethel Merman, Bette Midler and Barbra Streisand. And when an audience demands an encore he can give them Judy Garland at the drop of a hat. Now that takes talent, even if by modern standards drag performers aren't an outrageous as they used to be. (The existence of the television show RuPaul's Drag Race is proof of that.) As for Benner, he made two more features -- Happy Birthday, Gemini in 1980 and the sequel Too Outrageous! in 1987 -- and did a fair bit of television work before succumbing to AIDS in the fall of 1990, just one month after Russell. That's a far cry from the note of triumph Outrageous! ends on, but resilience only counts for so much.

You're not being a good girl, Cathy.

Don't ask me why, but I felt like tackling a "Chilling Classic" tonight and the one I settled on was Cathy's Curse, a film that, like Outrageous!, was made in Canada in 1977, but that is about the only thing the two of them have in common. Mill Creek's presentation of the film is baffling because it's letterboxed throughout, but the intertitles at the head of the picture are still cut off, so I guess it's not a true widescreen presentation. (What a shocker!) Also, it appears that the opening sequence, which takes place in 1947, was shot in sepia tones to make it look like a flashback, but in actual fact the entire film has the same washed-out look so it's just a really substandard print all around. (I know, I was taken aback, too.) Factor in the super-primitive sound editing and scenes that go nowhere and are cut together without any rhyme or reason and you've got one of the sorriest "Chilling Classics" I've come across.

And the worst part is it's a terribly derivative chiller, stealing from The Exorcist, The Omen, and even Burnt Offerings with its tale of a family of three that moves into the father's (a smarmy Alan Scarfe) old family home and soon finds that it has turned on them, possessing the daughter (a super-creepy Randi Allen) and attacking the mentally fragile mother (Beverly Murray, who straddles the line between haughty and hysterical). And how do we know Murray's mentally fragile? Because right at the beginning, during a discussion with Scarfe, she comes right out and says, "You know and I know that I've had a nervous breakdown, right?" Yes, and now the audience knows. Thank you for telling us in the most obvious way imaginable. Other thespians who suffer at the hands of director Eddy Matalon and his co-writers are Dorothy Davis as a kindly old lady who gets pushed out a window (the first of the Omen-inspired creative deaths), Mary Morter as a medium who's repeatedly called a "filthy female cow" and run off by the foul-mouthed Allen, and Roy Witham as the roaring drunk of a handyman who was apparently the only babysitter left for miles around.

Cathy's Curse is the kind of film where everybody overreacts to everything, and at times it seems like the actors are in a competition to see who can overact the most. It's also the kind of film where a little girl can suddenly make statues of naked ladies explode, teleport from place to place, and cause snakes, rats and tarantulas to appear out of nowhere, even though none of these are symptoms usually experienced by those who have been possessed by vengeful spirits. Oh, yes. And the evil spirit can be vanquished by simply plucking out the eyes of a doll -- the same doll that every adult has instinctively wanted to incinerate the moment they laid eyes on it. So naturally the doll comes nowhere near a fire at the climax of the film. Now that's some shitty screenwriting right there.

Sunday, September 5, 2010
What's a reunion without a little drama?

Thirty years ago today, the release of Return of the Secaucus Seven announced the arrival of an important new voice in American independent cinema. With Return, novelist-turned-filmmaker John Sayles used the money he had earned writing screenplays for Roger Corman to write and direct a low-key comedy-drama about the reunion of a group of former '60s radicals who spend the weekend catching up and reminiscing. If that sounds a lot like Lawrence Kasdan's 1983 film The Big Chill there's a good reason for that, only Sayles got there first -- and without the need for Hollywood stars or a Motown soundtrack.

This is not to say the film is bereft of familiar faces. Character actor David Strathairn makes his screen debut as an auto mechanic, the first of many roles he would play for Sayles, who also puts in an appearance as a local with three kids -- and a sharp reminder to the titular seven that of them have reproduced. Students of Sayles's other films may also recognize his partner Maggie Renzi as the teacher who offers the house she shares with fellow educator Bruce MacDonald to the other returnees, and Gordon Clapp as the straight young Democrat who's newly married to senatorial aide Jean Passanante (who has since gone to write for various soap operas). That just leaves Adam LeFevre as vagabond country singer/songwriter J.T., Maggie Cousineau as med student Frances, and Karen Trott and Mark Arnott as the married couple in the process of separating, which throws something of a pall over the gathering.

For the most part, though, Sayles stays away from the big moments and dramatic announcements, preferring to hang back and watch his characters talk and play together. In fact, the most exciting thing that happens all weekend comes when the group finds a dead deer in the middle of the road and is taken in by police, which calls up memories of their student protesting days. The realization that they're no longer the same people who believed they could make a difference in the world is a sobering one, but Sayles never was one for sugarcoating hard truths.

You really do need a system if you're gonna make it work.

I liked Christopher Nolan's Memento so much when it first came out that I saw it twice on the big screen in the spring of 2001. (The film's complicated structure pretty demanded -- and rewarded -- a second viewing.) Its actual premiere, though, was on September 5, 2000, at the Venice Film Festival, which is why I chose to watch it again this afternoon. So how does Nolan's breakthrough hold up after ten years? Well, not to give everything away right up front, but I'd say it holds up pretty damned well. Should Nolan decide to give the blockbusters a rest, I wouldn't mind seeing him take a crack at another Memento-scaled thriller some time.

I doubt I need to take up much space recounting the plot, but the fact that it still feels fresh can be attributed to the combination of Nolan's well-constructed screenplay (based on a story by his brother Jonathan) and the dead-on performances he gets out of his cast. Guy Pearce has never been better than he is as brain-damaged amateur detective Leonard Shelby, whose short-term memory loss makes his quest to find his wife's killer something of an uphill battle, to say the least. Even with all of his Polaroids and tattoos to back him up, he still doesn't know how much he can trust Carrie-Anne Moss's manipulative Natalie or Joe Pantoliano's omnipresent Teddy. I also continue to be impressed by Stephen Tobolowsky's turn as Sammy Jankis, whose condition parallels Shelby's and sheds light on the challenges he faces. And Callum Keith Rennie may not have a lot to do as Dodd, but his role in the story leads to the funniest moment in the whole film. (You'll know it when you see it.)

I suppose if I wanted to be a smartass, I could take all of the sentences in this review and put them in reverse order, but that's far from the best way to pay tribute to the film's achronological structure. After all, the genius of Memento lies not the fact that it's told backwards, but rather in the way Nolan uses that structure to disorient us, effectively placing the audience in Shelby's shoes. The difference, of course, is that we're able to put the pieces together to form the bigger picture. And what a picture it is.

Everything I've done, I've had good cause to do.

Caught the late showing of The American, which has apparently done well for itself this weekend, easily besting the likes of Machete and Going the Distance. This is no small feat considering it's a serious-minded, R-rated thriller, but I guess that just proves George Clooney still has the box office clout to open a movie. It also proves that director Anton Corbijn's debut, 2007's Control, was no fluke, for he brings the same visual panache to this film, which is about an American assassin hiding out in a picturesque Italian village, as he did to the story of Joy Division, which he had a personal connection to.

Working from a screenplay by Rowan Joffe, Corbijn's carefully framed compositions tell us everything we need to know about Clooney's weary assassin that he keeps bottled up inside. For one thing, he worries that he's lost his edge, but agrees to do one last job -- "a custom fit," as his ominous boss (Johan Leysen) calls it. Meanwhile, he strikes up an uneasy friendship with an old priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and a tentative romance with a beautiful prostitute (Violante Placido), all the while crafting a customized rifle for his mysterious client (Thekla Reuten). Even if you think you know where it's going, at least the journey is never less than compelling. And now that he's two for two, I can't wait to see what Corbijn does next.

Monday, September 6, 2010
Young man, you stick with these boys, you have a great future.

It's difficult for me to put into words just how much I love Terry Gilliam's all-encompassing fantasy film Time Bandits. It's a film that I literally grew up with, watching it countless times on cable throughout my youth and allowing myself to be whisked away by a band of dwarfs who jump through holes in the fabric of time to loot famous historical figures. (It didn't hurt that the main character, an 11-year-old boy named Kevin, was played by Craig Warnock, who may very well be the best child actor ever.) Later on I was thrilled to discover that the mad auteur who had warped my young imagination was also a charter member of Monty Python, and that Time Bandits was among the first films to be enshrined in the Criterion Collection (its spine number is 37). Truly, this is a children's film like no other.

It's tempting to say that Gilliam reached a creative peak with this film since it's the last one where he was able to allow his imagination to run free without coming up against any major production problems. Having been given carte blanche by George Harrison's Handmade Films -- as long as he brought the film in under budget -- Gilliam brought in key collaborators like co-writer (and fellow Python) Michael Palin, cinematographer Peter Biziou (who had previously shot Life of Brian) and editor/second unit director Julian Doyle (who also handled the model photography). He also managed to assemble a dream cast, including Ian Holm (as a height-obsessed Napoleon), Palin and Shelley Duvall (as star-crossed lovers in multiple time periods), John Cleese (as an ever-so chummy Robin Hood), David Warner (as the personification of Evil), Sean Connery (as a fatherly Agamemnon), Peter Vaughan and Katherine Helmond (as an ailing ogre and his devoted wife), and Ralph Richardson (as a Supreme Being who's very concerned about tidiness).

Then there are the titular bandits -- the actual stars of the film -- whose ranks are filled by David Rappaport, Jack Purvis, Kenny Baker, Malcolm Dixon, Mike Edmonds and Tiny Ross. It's impossible to imagine the film without them, just like it's difficult for me to fathom why Gilliam is considering retooling Time Bandits for 3-D. Of course, with the news that the financing for The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has fallen through once again, he may find it hard to resist the temptation to revisit one of his brightest moments, but to that I say resist, Terry, resist. The last thing you want to do is start down the road that Eric Idle has been blazing for the past couple decades.

Speaking of Eric Idle, he appears fleetingly in and contributes a song ("Accountancy Shanty") to The Crimson Permanent Assurance, Terry Gilliam's main contribution to 1983's The Meaning of Life. In brief, it tells the rousing tale of aged accountants who throw off the yokes of their oppressors, take up the mantle of corporate piracy and set sail on the high seas of international finance. Presented as a standalone short, The Crimson Permanent Assurance runs 16 1/2 minutes and was originally intended to be an interlude during the main feature, but under Gilliam's direction it quickly grew quite unwieldy. This was largely due to his decision to shoot it as live-action instead of cut-out animation, but with three features under his belt the idea of chaining himself to an animation stand for weeks on end must have held little appeal. This was also the project where Gilliam's reputation as an economical director "sailed off into the ledgers of history" (to quote the short's narrator) since it went way over budget. It's hard to argue with the end result, though, and in today's harsh economic climate its satirical barbs are more pointed than they ever were.

Gosh, we're all really impressed down here, I can tell you.

I've always found it strange that my first exposure to Monty Python was not through airings of the television series on PBS or MTV, but rather a movie preview show on Nickelodeon of all places. I'm not sure why it was deemed appropriate for the program to do a segment on The Meaning of Life, but I do recall some behind-the-scenes footage from the "Every Sperm Is Sacred" number and a sit-down interview with Michael Palin where he puzzled over what "the meaning of Monty Python" was. Considering this was to be the last Python film, that's evidently a question that everyone in the group was wrestling with at the time. Maybe they even knew it was going to be their last hurrah.

At any rate, The Meaning of Life has long been my favorite Python film, both in spite of and, in some respects, because of its unevenness. Lacking the resounding popularity of Holy Grail or the strong narrative of Life of Brian, The Meaning of Life lives and dies on the quality of its material, and while there are some scenes that aren't as sharp as they could be, the film's highlights remain some of the funniest things the troupe has ever done. Each individual Python also gets their moments to shine, whether it's Graham Chapman's opinionated Protestant, John Cleese's school headmaster/no-nonsense sex educator (whose wife, incidentally, is played by Rocky Horror alum Patricia Quinn), Terry Gilliam's overly chatty American dinner guest, Eric Idle's "Galaxy Song" crooner, Terry Jones's repugnant Mr. Creosote, or Michael Palin's downtrodden mill worker who has to sell his children for medical experiments.

On the directing front, Jones pulls out all the stops for "Every Sperm Is Sacred," even if he does shoot his proverbial wad early on, and Gilliam may bid farewell to animation with this film, but at least it's a fond one. In that vein, there are only a handful of scenes where all six Pythons appear, including the wraparound segments with the lot of them as fish in an aquarium, but my favorite has to be the one that takes place during the First World War wherein Jones's officer is the recipient of a series of unlikely presents from his squad while they're being shelled. That's the kind of absurd situation that only the Pythons in their prime could think up -- and pull off.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010
I can no longer tell where one torture ends and the next begins.

When one thinks of Troma Entertainment, the films that probably come to mind are The Toxic Avenger series, the Class of Nuke 'Em High trilogy, Sgt. Kabukiman N.Y.P.D. and the immortal Surf Nazis Must Die. What you don't expect to find in their catalog is a bleak urban drama about a Vietnam vet struggling to get by on the mean streets of Staten Island, but that's exactly what 1986's Combat Shock is. Of course, to call Combat Shock bleak doesn't even begin to describe how hopeless and depressing it really is. Written, produced, directed and edited by Buddy Giovinazzo, who's virtually a one-man film crew (he also collaborated on the sound design), the film charts the steady decline of frazzled veteran Frankie Dunlan (Ricky Giovinazzo, who also contributed the pulsing synthesizer score), whose prospects are few and whose hopes of making a better life for his wife and baby are pretty much nil.

It doesn't help that Frankie is literally haunted by his memories of Vietnam (he dreams he's back there every night), but his waking life is no less nightmarish. The apartment he lives in (and which he's about to be evicted from) is utterly squalid, his constantly bawling baby is a deformed freak (which is attributed to his exposure to Agent Orange), and his nagging wife (Veronica Stork) has another one in the oven. Meanwhile, he owes money to a ruthless mobster (Mitch Maglio), his best friend is a hopeless junkie (Michael Tierno), he's estranged from his father (who's flat broke, so he wouldn't be able to help out anyway), and his social worker (who somewhat improbably has a poster for Dawn of the Dead up on his office wall) can't find him a job. When Frankie somehow manages to get hold of a loaded gun, the end result isn't so much a tragedy as it's an inevitability.

As befits a Troma film (even if it is one that the company merely picked up for distribution after it was completed), there's plenty of blood and guts on display, although they're mostly confined to the extended Vietnam flashback that opens the film and the final gory reels when Frankie flips out. Throughout the film, though, his incessant voice-overs alert us to how close he is to cracking any given moment. "I know it isn't real, but the terror is real," he says after his petrifying visions assault him in the middle of the day. "It's part of me now and I can't escape it." I find it quite telling that this film was released the same year as Paul Hardcastle's unlikely dance hit "19," which uses sound clips culled from interviews with actual soldiers and a narrator rattling off frightening statistics to paint a portrait of how the war damaged the psyches of countless young men. My guess is that Frankie's point of view would have fit right in, especially when he says, "The battlefield may have changed, but the war is not over."

Wednesday, September 8, 2010
The thing about flirting is that it leads to harder things.

For the past two decades I've had a Hal Hartley-shaped hole in my film education, specifically as it applies to American independents who came to prominence in the '90s (see also: Whit Stillman). This week I decided to correct that by watching his first two features in succession, starting with 1989's The Unbelievable Truth. Written, directed, co-produced and edited by Hartley (truly a man who doesn't mind wearing a lot of hats), the film was shot in 1988 (in 11 days, no less), played some festivals in 1989, and was picked up for distribution by Miramax, which released it in the summer of 1990. Of course, by that time Hartley had already filmed and was preparing to exhibit his second feature, Trust, but that's for tomorrow. Tonight I'm all about his 11-day wonder of a debut.

The story concerns an ex-con (Hartley regular Robert John Burke) who, having nowhere else to go after he gets out of prison, hitchhikes home to Long Island and gets a job as a mechanic. Soon after he arrives in town he makes the acquaintance of a precocious high school senior (Adrienne Shelly) who's obsessed with the end of the world (which she believes is imminent) and has decided not to go to college even though she's been accepted to Harvard. This doesn't set well with her father (garage owner Christopher Cooke), who makes the first of many deals with her to get her to go to community college instead. He winds up making more deals to try to keep her from seeing Burke on account of his criminal past, but Cooke soon finds out just how little control he has over his daughter's life after she embarks on a modeling career. There are numerous other characters and subplots that I'm skipping over for the sake of brevity, but it's to Hartley's credit that he manages to tie all of them into his central romance in the end, even if it's the kind that nearly gets snuffed out before it has a chance to start.

Thursday, September 9, 2010
You can't know something unless you experience it first.

Twenty years ago today, Hal Hartley's Trust was screened for the first time at the Toronto International Film Festival. Made hot on the heels of The Unbelievable Truth, it again starred Adrienne Shelly, this time as a high school dropout who announces she's pregnant and, after her father drops dead at the news, is kicked out of the house by her vindictive mother (Merritt Nelson). Meanwhile, we're introduced to temperamental electronics whiz Martin Donovan, whose principles force him to quit his computer repair job because he refuses to do substandard work. Meanwhile, we're introduced to electronics whiz Martin Donovan, whose principles force him to quit his computer repair job because he refuses to do substandard work. On top of that, he's fervently anti-TV and carries a live grenade around with him at all times, because what's an indie protagonist without a few quirks? He also has a contentious relationship with his hard-ass of a father (John MacKay), who finally pushes him away, leaving him no choice but to leave home. I guess that makes Shelly and Donovan perfect for each other, right? Well, maybe. Nothing in Hartley's universe is ever that cut and dried.

In addition to Shelly, a few other actors from The Unbelievable Truth return for another go-round. Edie Falco, who played a waitress in the earlier film, gets upgraded to the role of Shelly's older sister, who's divorced and living at home again. Gary Sauer, who previously played Shelly's immature suitor, is now the high school football player who gets her pregnant and then rejects her. And Matt Malloy, who was a drunk driver and a street bum, is Donovan's supervisor and winds up with his head in a vice, which I suppose is one way of saying "I resign." As in The Unbelievable Truth, the characters all come together at the climax of the picture, although it doesn't seem quite as forced this time out. Hartley's dialogue also seems a lot more natural, which is what comes of hiring more experienced actors. I look forward to finding out where he goes from here.

Friday, September 10, 2010
So few clients are able to read my mind. They're just not open to the experience.

I was deeply saddened this week to learn of the passing of consummate character actor Glenn Shadix, who died on Tuesday at the age of 58. Like many moviegoers, I was introduced to him by Tim Burton in his 1988 film Beetlejuice, in which Shadix played Otho, a snarky interior decorator with a keen fashion sense and an outsized attitude to match his girth. It was Burton's second feature (he would use Shadix twice more, in The Nightmare Before Christmas and Planet of the Apes) and served as the perfect conduit between his idiosyncratic debut, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, and Batman, his entree into blockbuster filmmaking. I always got the impression that Burton was better suited to smaller, more self-contained films like Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands, though. Then again, since the Maitlands -- the dead married couple played by Alec Baldwin and Geena Davis -- are bound to their house, it's only natural that the film doesn't venture far from it.

When we first meet Adam and Barbara Maitland, they're positively giddy about the prospect of spending their two-week vacation together at home, but two weeks turns into 125 years when they die in an accident on their way back from an impromptu trip into town. Adjusting to existence in the afterlife would be one thing, but before long their home is invaded by a family from New York -- father Jeffrey Jones, who's only looking for some rest and relaxation away from the big city, mother Catherine O'Hara, an untalented sculptor who lives and breathes art and renovates the house with the help of Otho, and daughter Winona Ryder, whose goth outlook allows her to see and communicate with the Maitlands -- and they're in market for services of unlicensed bio-exorcist Michael Keaton, who doesn't get a whole lot of screen time as the title character, but he makes what he does get count doubly. The film also features great supporting turns by Sylvia Sidney (who would pop up again in Mars Attacks!) as the Maitlands' no-nonsense case worker, Dick Cavett as O'Hara's exasperated agent (and biggest critic), and Robert Goulet as a dinner guest with an interest in the supernatural who gets more than he bargained for.

Behind the scenes, Beetlejuice benefits immensely from an inventive script by Michael McDowell (who later helped adapt The Nightmare Before Christmas for the screen) and Warren Skaaren (who co-wrote Batman), brilliant production design work by Bo Welch (who did the same for Edward Scissorhands and Batman Returns), and one of Danny Elfman's best scores (of which he has done many for Burton over the years). The film also won the Academy Award for Best Makeup, which was well-deserved, but somehow Keaton was robbed of a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Of course, 1988 was the year that Kevin Kline won for A Fish Called Wanda and Dean Stockwell was nominated for Married to the Mob, so I guess the Academy didn't want to overload the category with too many comedies. Ah, well. It's their loss.

Saturday, September 11, 2010
This is what happens when you insist on being the hero.

When I walked into the theater showing Machete this afternoon, I wasn't expecting great things. The first of Grindhouse's fake trailers to become a real, honest-to-God movie, Machete aspires to be nothing more than an action-packed, take-no-prisoners exploitation film and it certainly succeeds on that level. Anybody looking for a nuanced critique of America's immigration policies, however, will have to look elsewhere.

Co-written, co-produced and co-edited by Robert Rodriguez, who shared directing chores with Ethan Maniquis, the film stars perennial bad ass Danny Trejo as the title character, an ex-Federale who's handy with most weapons but is especially adept with his namesake. The story hits all the beats that were included in the Grindhouse trailer: a Mexican day laborer is hired by a Texas businessman (Jeff Fahey) to perform an assassination, but he's double-crossed and, with the help of a priest (fellow Rodriquez regular Cheech Marin), goes after the men who set him up. Naturally, the feature version does much to flesh out the skeletal plot and to help with that effort introduces a bevy of supporting characters, many of which are played by some pretty heavy hitters.

On one side you've got dedicated immigration agent Jessica Alba, who's investigating taco truck owner Michelle Rodriguez and is the first to recognize that Trejo is no ordinary day laborer. On the other there's right-wing state senator Robert De Niro, whose reelection campaign hinges on the illegal immigration issue, Mexican drug lord Steven Seagal, border vigilante Don Johnson, and hit man Tom Savini, who's hired to take out Trejo when Fahey's own men fail to get the job done. And somewhere in the middle is Lindsay Lohan as Fahey's drugged-out daughter, a role that an unkind spectator might say was tailor-made for her. Considering the mantle the character takes on in the closing reels, one has to wonder whether Rodriquez intends for her to return in the proposed sequels, Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again. (What, he hasn't killed enough people yet?)

I can change "top of the heap."

When I think of the "Theme from New York, New York," the version that comes to mind is Frank Sinatra's 1980 cover, not the one Liza Minnelli sings in the actual film. This isn't too surprising, though, considering I'd never seen the film before tonight. Made in 1977, New York, New York was directed by Martin Scorsese, who felt like stretching a bit after the relentlessly grim Taxi Driver. Not that New York, New York is a walk in the park. Far from it. In fact, the character Robert De Niro plays is so repellent it's hard to figure out why Minnelli puts up with him as long as she does, but I'm getting ahead of myself here.

The film, which was written by Earl Mac Rauch and Mardik Martin, opens on V-J Day with war veteran De Niro on the make in a loud Hawaiian shirt and Minnelli as a standoffish WAC who is the recipient of his unwanted advances. That sets the tone for their entire relationship, since he's consistently pushy and obnoxious, forcing her to make excuses for his misbehavior. She even comes to his rescue when she sees he's failing an audition for a club owner (Dick Miller) who doesn't like the brash way he plays the saxophone. Later on he joins her as part of a traveling orchestra and, after they get married, takes it over from the bandleader. This is also the point where Minnelli starts to get noticed and the groundwork is laid for her eventual solo singing career, which is encouraged by her agent (Lionel Stander) and helped along by her decision to return to New York when she gets pregnant. As one might expect, De Niro isn't thrilled by either of these developments, especially when Minnelli's replacement (Mary Kay Place) goes over like a lead balloon and the band's fortunes fade.

After De Niro rejoins Minnelli in New York, he starts performing at a club in Harlem which is far more receptive to his style of playing. He also starts working in earnest on what will become the movie's theme song, but when Minnelli puts words to it he isn't entirely thrilled with them. He also becomes increasingly abusive and thoroughly unappealing, so it's a relief when he leaves her and she goes on to have great success. She even moves to Hollywood and stars in a hit movie musical called Happy Endings, which is in sharp contrast to Scorsese's film, which flopped on its initial release (the 2 1/2-hour running time probably didn't help matters) but was given a second chance a few years later and even developed a cult audience. After the abominable way he behaved, that's more than De Niro can expect from Minnelli.

Sunday, September 12, 2010
I got a nut running around with a gun, one dead girl and four potential victims.

For today's "Chilling Classic" I went with 1977's Sisters of Death, a film that poses the question "Why would anybody attend a seven-year reunion?" and never answers it to any degree of satisfaction. The film opens with an initiation gone wrong when pledges Claudia Jennings (no relation to Peter) and Elizabeth Bergen (no relation to Edgar or Candace) go through an arcane ritual to join a secret society of androids and only one of them lives to the tell the tale. Cut to seven years later when Jennings (who is plagued by nightmares) and the other four participants are summoned to a mysterious reunion about which only one of them, mystical flower child Roxanne Albee (no relation to Edward), is apprehensive. The others are unhappy hooker Cheri Howell (no relation to Thurston the Third or Lovey), unwary hitchhiker Sherry Boucher (no relation to anybody), and unrepentant speeder Sherry Alberoni (okay, I'll give it a rest), who manages to talk herself out of a speeding ticket. Well, so much for the sisters. What about the guy who wants to bring them death?

As it turns out, Bergen's bereaved father (Arthur Franz) is the one who invited them out to his isolated house (which is surrounded by an electrified fence so they can't escape) and hopes to frighten one of them into confessing to his daughter's murder. What he doesn't count on is the two horndogs (Paul Carr and Joe Tata) he hired to pick them up and drop them off at the house sticking around and trying to put the moves on them (unsuccessfully, I might add). Anyway, the sisters start getting picked off one by one -- one is strangled, one is stabbed with scissors in the shower, one is bitten by a snake -- and Carr and Tata prove to be lousy at protecting them. And just in case things aren't weird enough, at one point Franz takes a break from making his own bullets to perform a flute duet with his deceased daughter. Here's a man who clearly never made it all the way through the grieving process.

There's nothing about Sisters of Death that stands out as being particularly terrible, which I suppose could be construed as praise of a sort for director Joseph A. Mazzuca, but it doesn't have a whole lot going for it in the plus column either. There's also one serious technical gaffe 30 minutes in when a really obvious boom mike dips into frame. And there's a point near the end where the deranged father releases a vicious dog to attack someone and I had to wonder where has this dog been the whole movie? And did they let it chase the boom man around after the dailies came back? Because if I were the director that's what I would have done.

It's foolish to ask for luxuries in times like these.

I skipped The Road when it was in theaters because it just looked too dark and depressing. Not that every film I see needs to be all sweetness and light, but if I have to go out of my way to see a film (and The Road would have required a trip to Indianapolis), I don't want it to be something that will emotionally drain me. I knew I'd get around to it eventually, though, because I liked director John Hillcoat's last film, The Proposition, and this one's based on a novel by Cormac McCarthy, who also penned No Country for Old Men. Furthermore, the music for the the film was written by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, who also scored The Proposition and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. As pedigrees go, it would be hard to find better.

Then, of course, there's the great cast, which is headed by Viggo Mortensen as a man trying to keep himself and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) alive in a barren, post-apocalyptic world (which is vividly captured by Spanish cinematographer Javier Aguirresarobe) without resorting to wanton killing or cannibalism. There's little for them to scavenge, though, and they're teetering on the brink of starvation as they make their way south (where they hope it will be warmer) and toward the coast. The film is dotted with brief flashbacks to the life Mortensen had with his wife (Charlize Theron) before the cataclysm, as well as what led up to her decision to leave them. Along the way, Mortensen and McPhee evade roving bands of marauders and cannibals and, at their lowest ebb, stumble upon a fully-stocked bomb shelter. They also encounter an old man (Robert Duvall) whose plight mirrors their own, but Mortensen is unmoved my his son's pleas to help him. (Survival at all costs has a way of eating away one's conscience, it seems.) Then there's Guy Pearce and Molly Parker as a couple who have managed to keep their family more or less intact. Proof that not everyone has given up hope.

Monday, September 13, 2010
You have to make your reputation on being honest and unmerciful.

I'm not sure exactly why I passed on Almost Famous when it was released a decade ago -- after all, it had enough glowing reviews on its side. Perhaps it was due to the fact that writer/director Cameron Crowe's previous film, Jerry Maguire, spawned such odious catchphrases as "Show me the money!" and "You had me at 'hello'" that I simply couldn't stomach it at the time. No matter; I have caught up with it now, although I'm sure Crowe would have preferred it if I had gone with the 162-minute extended "bootleg cut" instead of the theatrical version, which is a full 40 minutes shorter. Frankly, two hours of Almost Famous felt like quite enough for me.

The story, which is based on Crowe's own experiences writing for Rolling Stone in his teens, is centered around 15-year-old Crowe stand-in Patrick Fugit, who aspires to be a rock journalist and gets his golden opportunity when the magazine sends him on the road with up-and-coming rock band Stillwater in the spring of 1973. Fugit's overprotective mother (the incomparable Frances McDormand) isn't so hot on the idea but lets him go anyway and he bonds with the band (whose ranks include lead singer Jason Lee and guitarist Billy Crudup, who's starting to overshadow the other members) to such a degree that he finds it difficult to be objective when it comes time to deliver his article. He also develops a serious crush on super-groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson), who is herself stuck on Crudup despite the fact that he already has a girlfriend. The cast also includes Noah Taylor as the band's barely competent manager, Jimmy Fallon as the more professional manager the record company sends to get their affairs in order, Zooey Deschanel as Fugit's older sister, who ignites his love of music by leaving her records to him, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, his mentor and confidante.

One of the running subplots in the film is Fugit's inability to pin Crudup down for an interview, which may stem from their first meeting where the band dubbed him "the enemy." Crudup opens up in other ways, though, and lets Fugit tag along when he goes off in search of something "real." In the end everything he witnesses becomes fodder for his article, even some of the things the band would rather keep off the record, and Fugit does a whole lot of growing up in the process. He also learns the truth of one of Crudup's semi-profound pronouncements: "Some of the people you meet on the road are really amazing people." Stick around long enough, though, and you start to notice the warts.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010
Gentlemen, does the name Dr. Mabuse mean anything to you?

After winding up his career in America, Fritz Lang returned to Germany to make a handful of films in his native tongue. The last of them was The 1000 Eyes of Dr. Mabuse, which was released 50 years ago today and resurrected one of Lang's most enduring characters (albeit one created by novelist Norbert Jacques). Sure, he may have died in 1933's The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, but his spirit lived on and 27 years later the name Dr. Mabuse was still capable of striking fear into the hearts of criminals and policemen alike.

The plot's a bit of a jumble, but most of it revolves around police inspector Gert Fröbe's attempts to find out who's responsible for a series of baffling murders. In this effort he's aided by a blind clairvoyant (Wolfgang Preiss) who calls Fröbe whenever he has a premonition, but usually he's too vague to be much help. There's also a subplot about a wealthy American (Peter van Eyck) who talks a suicidal woman (Dawn Addams) off the ledge outside his hotel room and then unwisely gets involved with her. And Fröbe also has his eye on an insurance salesman (Werner Peters) who always seems to be hanging around, but more often than not he winds up barking up the wrong tree. I also recognized Swiss actor Howard Vernon (later to play Dr. Orloff in a series of films for prolific Spanish director Jesus Franco) as one of Mabuse's more lethal operatives.

Probably the best thing about the (unfortunately out of print) All Day Entertainment release of The 1000 Eyes is the masterful commentary by David Kalat, who literally wrote the book on Dr. Mabuse in all of his manifestations with 2001's The Strange Case of Dr. Mabuse. In addition to this film, he's also done commentaries for Dr. Mabuse: The Gambler, Criterion's edition of The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, Kino's edition of Scarlet Street and the forthcoming fully restored edition of Metropolis. Suffice it to say, if the subject is Lang and/or Mabuse, then Kalat's your man, no question.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010
It's the darn men in this town. They keep running into her just to start a conversation.

Sad as I was to learn of the passing of actor Kevin McCarthy on Saturday, the fact that he made it to 96 took some of the sting out of the news. He also never really stopped working, appearing in a couple films a year, including Anthony Hopkins's bizarre vanity project Slipstream, in which he played himself. When casting about for which film to which in his memory, though, I landed on John Huston's The Misfits, which was written by Arthur Miller for his then-wife Marilyn Monroe to star in. McCarthy's part is actually very small (he gets one brief scene early on and then he's done), but it's a pivotal one since he plays the husband Monroe is in Reno to divorce. (I also noted that he's credited as appearing "by special arrangement," so I guess that's something.)

The real stars of the film (in addition to Monroe, of course) are Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach as three men who enter Monroe's orbit after her divorce from McCarthy is finalized. Gable's a charming cowboy, Clift is a luckless rodeo rider and Wallach is a pilot and widower. All are damaged in some way (as is Monroe, who can't stand the sight or even the thought of animal cruelty), but Gable's the one who forges the first connection with her. Too bad he learns too late that the fragile Monroe is the last person in the world you should take with you when you go mustanging.

On the distaff side of the equation, the film features Thelma Ritter as a down-to-earth divorcée who rents rooms to women who are in Reno to get unhitched -- and even coaches them on what to say when they go before the judge -- and a cameo by Estelle Winwood (also "by special arrangement") as a persistent lady collecting for the church. (Like everyone else, she's out to get something from Monroe.) In the end, the film probably relies too much on heavy symbolism (Wallach's unfinished house, the wild mustangs the men corral to sell for dog food) for its own good, but today it's best remembered for being Gable and Monroe's cinematic swan song. And now with McCarthy gone the only cast member who's still around is Wallach -- and at 94 he's just as active. Must have been something in the Reno water supply.

Thursday, September 16, 2010
People often do things they don't understand. It doesn't make them less genuine.

For his follow-up to Trust, Hal Hartley wrote and directed Surviving Desire in 1991. At 55 minutes, it's too long to be a short and too short to be a feature (which is why it's often bundled with two of Hartley's contemporaneous shorts), but it says all it needs to say about its characters and situation, which is what should determine the length of a film anyway. The story is centered around a cerebral college literary professor (Martin Donovan) who becomes infatuated with one of his students (Mary B. Ward) and finds it difficult to express just how he feels about her. For her part, Ward considers Donovan little more than fodder for a short story she's writing and treats their tentative relationship accordingly. It's not hard to see whose heart is going to get broken by the time the credits roll.

Before that happens, Hartley's roving camera also observes Donovan as he interacts with a doctoral student (Matt Malloy) who drifts aimlessly after getting thrown out of school and a homeless woman (Merritt Nelson) whose mental illness manifests itself in her asking -- nay, demanding -- every man she meets to marry her. Apart from Hartley's arch dialogue it's all presented very straightforwardly save for a spontaneous dance routine that Donovan breaks into (with the support of a couple random back-up dancers) after Ward agrees to go out with him. His jubilation is short-lived, though, and he winds up lying in the gutter wondering just how he got there. At least he's still capable of picking himself up afterward. That's more than some who have felt the sharp sting of rejection can manage.

Saturday, September 18, 2010
We don't have to say anything about the risk of contamination. There's no point in causing alarm.

There's a certain amount of confusion surrounding the release date of the "Chilling Classic" Panic (which also apparently takes place in a "Nightmare World"). An Italian-Spanish co-production that is set in neither of those countries (jolly old England is its purported locale), many online sources list it as 1976, but the Internet Movie Database insists it's from 1982. Judging by the look of the film, though, I'm much more inclined to believe the former over the latter. Of course, even the film itself is suspect since, after the parade of Spanish and Italian names in the cast and crew, it has the temerity to claim that its director is one "Anthony Richmond" (a transparent pseudonym for Tonino Ricci). Then there's this credit: "Monster" effects created by Rino Carboni. The fact that "Monster" has to be put in quotes doesn't exactly inspire much confidence.

Anyway, the credits are interspersed with extreme close-ups of lab mice (to freak out all the people who are rodent-phobic, I guess), after which they start attacking each other and lab assistant Janet Agren raises the alarm. Meanwhile, there's a confusing cutaway to a guy with green stuff on his face and hands -- which are also smoking, by the way -- and... it's time for a cover-up! There's a lot of talk about something called the Pluriman Plan and a Professor Adams who's disappeared and an escaped guinea pig and the need to keep everything hush-hush, which isn't much help to a random couple who decides to have a quick one in a parking garage while being stalked by an unseen assailant. After they're dispatched we're introduced to our hero, David Warbeck (playing a character named, I shit you not, Captain Kirk), who's brought in to assess the situation and get things under control before the government has to take drastic measures to contain the deadly virus that is ravaging the town in the form of one guy trolling through the sewers and occasionally emerging to attack people in the shower (the shower scene in this film is practically the dictionary definition of gratuitous) and a movie theater (which is showing the most banal movie-within-a-movie ever -- just random shots of a guy driving around).

All the while, the dialogue vacillates between the incredibly cliché (a doctor examines one of the victims and says, "I never thought a human being could do such a thing.") and the completely ludicrous (as when policeman José Lifante -- who later had small roles in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen and Stuart Gordon's Dagon -- declares, "I only have two people under me and they're busy chasing a homicidal maniac."). As for the "Monster," sure, he goes around gruesomely killing people, but he has such a pathetic wheeze and a painful-looking limp that you can't help but feel a little sorry for him. After leading his pursuers on a chase through the sewers (just like in The Third Man!), he even gets to show one final spark of humanity (courtesy of a close-up of his disgustingly pulsating face), which makes his subsequent death by fire extinguisher doubly ignominious. Then, after the credits have rolled, the following legend appears: WHAT YOU HAVE SEEN MIGHT REALLY HAPPEN ... PERHAPS IT ALREADY HAS! Personally, I'm leaning toward PERHAPS NOT.

Sunday, September 19, 2010
The perfect murder would be the one in which the victim did it.

Over the course of his brief but productive career, Rainer Werner Fassbinder only made a handful of films in English, the first of which was 1978's Despair, based on the novel by Vladimir Nabokov which was adapted for the screen by Tom Stoppard. Set in Germany in the aftermath of the Wall Street Crash of 1929, the film stars Dirk Bogarde as a Russian chocolatier who has grown disenchanted with life in general and with his feather-brained wife (Andréa Ferréol) in particular. It's bad enough that he considers her his intellectual inferior, but it certainly doesn't help matters that she's brazenly carrying on an affair with her Ukrainian cousin (Volker Spengler), a painter by trade and a first-class sponger by vocation. Furthermore, his business is struggling due to his indecisiveness (he's unable to tell whether his product is "too bitter or not bitter enough") and, with the rise of National Socialism, he can foresee a time when he'll no longer be welcome in his adopted home. What's a fellow to do?

Well, if you're Bogarde, one thing you can do is find a transient worker (Klaus Löwitsch) who only superficially resembles you and, laboring under the delusion that the two of you are exact doubles, hatch a ludicrous scheme to trade places with the man. The fact that he makes his slow-witted wife an integral part of his plan is all the proof one needs that he's lost his tenuous grip on reality. And given the lengths to which Fassbinder evokes life in Berlin during the period, it's easy to see Bogarde as but one of many self-deluded fools who was soon to be overtaken by history. In this way, Despair can also be seen as a warm-up for Berlin Alexanderplatz, the massive undertaking that would consume a whole year of Fassbinder's life two years hence. Whether Fassbinder saw it that way or not is another matter entirely.

Can you give me one reason on earth why this strange man would leave that will with you?

I'm not sure what it says about me that I saw the SCTV parody of Melvin and Howard years ago and I've only just now gotten around to watching the actual film. Then again, today is the 30th anniversary of its release, which would explain why I've suddenly taken such an interest in it. The film, which is based on a true story (something I did not know going in), follows a luckless fellow named Melvin (Paul Le Mat) who picks up what appears to be a homeless bum in the Nevada desert and doesn't believe him when the man (Jason Robards) claims to be Howard Hughes. Le Mat, being the nice guy he is, drives him to Las Vegas as per Robards's request and even gives him all the money he has on him before sending the bedraggled man on his way. End of story.

Or not, as the case may be. Turns out there's a lot more to Melvin Dummar, as director Jonathan Demme (then a recent graduate of the Roger Corman School of Filmmaking) and screenwriter Bo Goldman (who won an Academy Award for his efforts) amply illustrate. We're privy to his on-again/off-again marriage to his first wife Lynda (Mary Steenburgen, who won Best Supporting Actress), who leaves him twice (returning to live with her mother, Gloria Grahame, both times) over his irresponsibility with money, his friendship with fellow factory worker Michael J. Pollard, and his rocky marriage to second wife Bonnie (Pamela Reed), who goes on to operate a gas station in Utah with him. That's where he's contacted by a mysterious representative of Hughes's estate (Charles Napier) who leaves him with a handwritten will naming him as one of the billionaire's beneficiaries. And that's where things get interesting. (In all fairness, things are plenty interesting before that. That's just where things get complicated from a legal standpoint.)

As with all great stories, it's the details that matter and Melvin and Howard is chock full of revealing details, like the flashy game show Easy Street, which represents the American Dream that Le Mat keep striving for. And I find it amusing that when he goes to work for a dairy as a milkman he drives a truck with a sticker that reads "I GET MINE AT HOME AND I LOVE IT!" This is, of course, only revealed after he's had sex with one of his amorous customers. Then there are the lawyers (one of whom is played by a young John Glover) and the judge (Dabney Coleman) who essentially tell him flat out that they think he's lying about how the will came to be in his possession. Now, the lawyers I can understand, but I'd think that kind of behavior would call the judge's impartiality into question.

What are you doing tonight? Do you wanna have dinner?

After Melvin and Howard, there's only one other film with "Melvin" in the title and it's one that I own, so it seemed silly for me not to follow it up with Melvin Goes to Dinner. Made in 2003, it was Bob Odenkirk's directorial debut (not counting some television work) and proved there was life after Mr. Show for the multi-talented writer/performer. The film was written by Michael Blieden, based on his own play, and he also reprises the role of Melvin from the stage production. In fact, all of the main actors were carried over from the play, with Matt Price as Blieden's married friend, Stephanie Courtney as Price's friend from business school, and Annabelle Gurwitch as Courtney's friend from way back. And even if they don't all know each other before they sit down to eat (and drink -- boy, do they ever drink), it's fair to say they're on intimate terms when the time comes to pay the check.

To open up the play, Blieden expands on some of the stories the four friends tell (which are shown in flashback) and we also get to see what each of them was doing in the hours leading up to dinner. These cutaways give Odenkirk the chance to stack the supporting cast with a number of familiar faces, from Maura Tierney (who plays Blieden's older sister) and Melora Walters (as his demanding girlfriend) to Laura Kightlinger (as Price's boss) and Fred Arminsen (as a Finnish client). There's also room for Mr. Show alumni including Odenkirk himself (as Gurwitch's old boyfriend who's still hung up on her), David Cross (as a seminar leader), Jack Black (as a mental patient) and Scott Adsit (as a bystander). Eagle-eyed viewers will also be able to spot Jenna Fischer in her film debut as the restaurant hostess. I fear few people have ever gotten to see Melvin Goes to Dinner, though, which is a shame because while it may be a film of modest ambitions, it manages to capture the organic quality of an actual conversation, with all its natural ebbs and flows, quite beautifully.

Monday, September 20, 2010
You see the world from such lofty heights that everything below is a bit comical to you, isn't it?

As with Hal Hartley, I had something of a blind spot for Whit Stillman in the '90s, which is odd considering he's only made three films, so catching up would have been a breeze at just about any time over the past decade or so. I thought I was going to get started on him this summer since last month was the 20th anniversary of the release of his debut, Metropolitan, but the date coincided with my vacation and, well, it just didn't happen. It's probably just as well. It's not like I'm going to wait until 2014 to see his follow-up, Barcelona, or 2018 for what is (so far) his aptly titled last film, The Last Days of Disco.

Written, produced and directed by Stillman, Metropolitan is centered around middle-class college student Edward Clements, who gets roped into a series of debutante parties and other social gatherings over the Christmas holidays. Unafraid to voice his opinions (he's an avowed socialist and is opposed to the trappings of upper-class existence on principle), he makes a splash at the first gathering he's dragged to by the snobbish Chris Eigeman (who has his own prejudices against the titled aristocracy) and he makes a definite impression on young debutante Carolyn Farina, who turns out to be harboring a crush on him. That's all well and good, but Clements is hung up on a girl who's out of his league and besides, someone else in their circle, the socially awkward Taylor Nichols (who, incidentally, thinks Clements is a phony), has a crush on Farina. Will they be able to work it all out before the party season is over? That is the question.

Like Hartley, Stillman has a knack for crafting memorable dialogue that seems mannered but sounds perfectly natural when it's delivered by the right actors (a trait that was later picked up by Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson). Since I know Stillman carried some of the actors from Metropolitan over to his other films (and Baumbach even pinched one, Chris Eigeman, for his own debut feature), I can only imagine they continued to excel at bringing his witty and well-spoken characters to life.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010
I never met anybody that made being a son of a bitch such a point of pride.

There are two Coen Brothers films that I have yet to see on the big screen: Raising Arizona and Miller's Crossing. As much as I would relish the opportunity to see Raising Arizona with an audience (it is, after all, one of their most raucous comedies), I get the distinct impression that Miller's Crossing would have the greater impact, simply because it's the one where they came into their own as filmmakers. And lest we forget, it was while the Coens were writing Miller's Crossing that they were struck by the writer's block that inspired Barton Fink, the film that really put them on the map. (There's a reason why Gabriel Byrne's character lives at the Barton Arms.)

I won't try to unravel the labyrinthine plot, but in broad strokes it deals with a mob war between hardheaded Irish boss Albert Finney (who believes he's untouchable) and upstart Italian Jon Polito (who's obsessed with ethics and doesn't like being given the high hat). Byrne starts out as Finney's trusted adviser, but goes over to the other side for reasons that are too complicated to go into, but one of them involves Finney's moll (Marcia Gay Harden), who's trying to protect her slimy brother (John Turturro). This film also marks the first appearances of Steve Buscemi (in a brief but pivotal role) and Michael Badalucco, who join Turturro and Polito in the Coens' unofficial repertory company. It's a shame they haven't found any other parts for J.E. Freeman, though. He brings a real sense of menace to The Dane, one of the most dangerous and imposing characters in their entire filmography. Like a lot of characters in Miller's Crossing, he comes to a particularly bad end, but just about everybody who gets it really deserves it.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010
For the first time, the love of a woman has changed the destiny of Dracula.

As the Summer of Naschy draws to a close, I have chosen the eve of the full moon (which just so happens to coincide with the autumnal equinox) to check out one of his non-Hombre Lobo films. To that end, I got Count Dracula's Great Love -- as seen on Elvira's Movie Macabre -- from Netflix. Made in 1972, the film was directed by Javier Aguirre, who co-wrote the script with Paul Naschy and Alberto S. Insúa, and stars Naschy as the Count, who's posing as a Dr. Wendell Marlow and has taken up residence in an abandoned sanitarium. Its unsavory history is relayed by a passing traveler (Víctor Alcázar, credited as Vic Winner) who is stranded in the vicinity with four damsels in poofy dresses when their carriage loses a wheel and the coachmen is kicked in the noggin by a bucking horse. Not the best start to any vacation.

But the film doesn't start with Naschy or Alcázar or even the four frails. First come the two workmen who are moving Naschy's belongings into the sanitarium and find one of the boxes contains a coffin with a skeleton inside (which is later revealed to be the remains of Dracula's daughter). That would be bad enough, but when they get snoopy and start looking for things to steal one gets it in the neck and the other gets an axe through the head and tumbles down the stairs in slow-motion. This shot is then repeated several times under the opening credits, after which we're introduced to Alcázar and his frequently topless female companions. In descending order of sluttiness, they are Rosanna Yanni (who wins top honors for her steamy sex scene with Naschy), Ingrid Garbo (whose affair with Alcázar is a poorly kept secret), Mirta Miller (the most skittish of the bunch), and Haydée Politoff (the virginal one who turns out to be the love of Dracula's undeath).

Once the group gets settled in it doesn't take long for them to start falling prey to the vampires (ever the good aristocrat, Naschy lets the workman from the beginning do a lot of the dirty work) and then, once bitten, turning on each other. Naschy even gets to act all heroic by saving Politoff from Alcázar and then casually tossing him out the window. Of course, Naschy only saves her so she can play her part in the overly complicated three-part ceremony that is required to resurrect his daughter, but he changes his mind at the last minute because he wants to spend eternity with Politoff instead. When she turns him down, he takes it pretty badly and stakes himself, which seems drastic on the face of it, but what does he have to go on unliving for at that point? Clearly not a whole lot. Still, this isn't necessarily the end of the line for Dracula. As Van Helsing's journal states: "Whenever man's blood is drawn by his brother, Dracula will return to punish this horror with horror." I guess Naschy wanted to leave the door open for a sequel. That, however, was not to be. Instead, Naschy had something else in mind for an encore...

Thursday, September 23, 2010
A woman in love would do anything to free her lover from the Devil.

Fall may have fallen, but I still have one werewolf film left to cap off the Summer of Naschy: 1973's Curse of the Devil, which has also gone out as The Return of Walpurgis (the literal translation of its Spanish title) and, rather inexplicably, The Black Harvest of Countess Dracula (no idea where they got that from). Equally inexplicable is the fact that on the print I saw the story and screenplay were credited to "Jack Moll" instead of Jacinto Molina, but at least it's not as much of a leap from Carlos to Charles Aured for the director credit. (Aured, incidentally, was something of a Naschy pro at this point, having helmed House of Psychotic Women and The Mummy's Revenge right before and cranking out Horror Rises from the Tomb right after -- all of them in 1973. Of course, Naschy acted in eleven films that year, eight of which he wrote or co-wrote, so I guess that makes Aured a slacker in comparison.)

Anyway, for his seventh outing as Waldemar Daninsky, Naschy gives him yet another origin story. Way back in the past (year unspecified), one of Waldemar's ancestors killed a knight in a duel (which gives Naschy an excuse to dress up in a suit of armor and everything) and then put an entire coven of witches to death, but not before their leader, Elizabeth Bathory (María Silva), could put an unnecessarily complicated curse on him. Fast forward an unknown number of years (but it's not the present because people still take horse-drawn carriages everywhere), and we pick up Waldemar as he's taking part in a wolf hunt. He shoots the beast, but the body he recovers is that of a man, which enrages the gypsies who come to claim it and conveniently fulfills the first part of Bathory's curse. Next the gypsies summon a skinny guy in an all-black body stocking (who has an obvious zipper running down his back) who chooses which one of them is going to smuggle a wolf's skull into Waldemar's castle, seduce him, spill some of their own blood on the skull and then use it to nip the guy in the chest, thus infecting him with the werewolf's curse. (Sounds simple enough, right?) And there's no way to trace her back to the gypsies (not that anyone really tries) since the lucky lady who gets the job (Inés Morales) is killed right after she does the deed by an escaped criminal who's prowling around the castle grounds.

If that seems like a lot of set-up to get Naschy to turn into El Hombre Lobo, it is (the movie's nearly half over before he makes his first kill). And if you're wondering why Naschy felt the need to throw a garden-variety maniac into the mix, that's probably so the resident ineffectual policeman (Vidal Molina) could have somebody else to pin the murders on while the villagers all mumble about the werewolf they're convinced is on the loose. (It also gives rise to priceless lines like "We're dealing with a monster, an insane killer." and "It's not a comforting thing to have an insane killer in the area, but you mustn't give credence to the stories.") Meanwhile, Waldemar makes the acquaintance of an engineer from Budapest and his two daughters -- the lovely Kinga (Fabiola Falcón) and her slutty sister Maria (Maritza Olivares) -- and you'll never guess which one becomes werewolf chow and which one gets to stab him in the chest with a silver dagger and end his suffering. (If there's one detail Naschy picked up from Universal's Wolf Man and definitely ran with, it was the notion that a person had to love the werewolf to be able to kill him.) There's also an old family servant (Ana Farra) who knows his secret and covers for him out of loyalty, which would be touching if it weren't so misguided. Maybe if she'd been up front with him about the curse his family lived under, he could have avoided the whole mess entirely -- or at least put it off for another generation or two.

Saturday, September 25, 2010
It's a fine time to have a panic, just before our Winter Carnival.

Was able to kill three birds with one stone since today's "Chilling Classic," 1977's Snowbeast, is also included in Mill Creek's "Drive-In Movie Classics" set and Brentwood's "Beasts of Terror" collection. Not too shabby for a TV movie about a rogue Bigfoot stalking and killing the guests at a Colorado ski lodge during its annual Winter Carnival. (It's such a blatant Jaws knock-off at times that you half expect sheriff Clint Walker to say, "We've got to close the slopes!") Written by Joseph Stefano (who was a long way from Psycho) and directed by television veteran Herb Wallerstein (who never made the leap to features), the film stars Bo Svenson as a former Olympic skier who hasn't been on skis since he won the gold medal in '68 and has found he can no longer coast on his former glories. To that end, he drags his TV reporter wife (Yvette Mimieux) along with him to the ski lodge run by his best friend (Robert Logan), who is more than happy to give Svenson a job despite the fact that he's got enough on his plate what with the hairy, hulking beast that's killing the guests.

Actually, when Svenson and Mimieux roll into town it's only attacked one guest so far -- and her fate is still unknown at that point -- prompting Logan's grandmother (Sylvia Sidney) to tell him to keep things hush-hush so the Winter Carnival can go on as planned. That doesn't stop one intrepid ski patrolman from going off on his own and looking for the girl. And looking. And looking. And looking. (The MST3K episode The Sidehackers featured a song called "Only Love Pads the Film." If they had ever done Snowbeast on the show, it would have been "Only Skiing Pads the Film.") Naturally he also becomes Bigfoot chow, leading to the first fade to red (which come at regular intervals to let you know when the commercials would have been) and the promise of more shortsightedness to come. Even Sidney can't ignore the problem, though, when it attacks the school where the Snow Queen-crowning ceremony is taking place. This eventually leads to more padding in the form of snowmobiling as Svenson, Mimieux, Logan and Walker all set out to take care of the menace once and for all.

Admittedly, I'm skipping over a lot of plot involving Svenson and Mimieux's shaky marriage and Logan's shameless flirting with her. The film also hits most of the standard creature-on-the-loose tropes, as when Logan proclaims, "This wasn't an animal! And it wasn't human, either." Or when Walker guns down a grizzly bear which the heroes know for a fact isn't responsible for the killings. There's even a spirited debate about the creature's very existence, which prompts Svenson to recall the hard-hitting report Mimieux did on the Bigfoot controversy, because that's the sort of thing serious journalists covered back in the '70s. In the end, the Snowbeast is vanquished (after nearly outsmarting our heroes, admittedly not the hardest thing to do in the world) when Svenson shoots it a bunch of times and stabs it with a ski pole, leading to one of the funniest point-of-view shots ever as it stumbles around with the pole sticking out of its chest. But that's still not as funny as the credit "And Michael J. London as The Snowbeast." I guess Jerry Mathers wasn't available.

I'm sorry to subject you to such a spectacle, but that's the way things go sometimes.

I couldn't let the month elapse without watching at least one more Paul Naschy joint, so I chose 1973's Horror Rises from the Tomb since it introduced Naschy's warlock character Alaric de Marnac, who would be revived a decade later in 1983's Panic Beats. In this, his first outing, Alaric is beheaded and his partner Mabille (Helga Liné) is hanged for being practicing Satanists in 15th century France. (Guess that wasn't a popular pastime.) Before they're dispatched, though, they curse their executioners, promising to return one day to torment their descendants (shades of Curse of the Devil). Cut to present-day Paris, where painter Maurice Roland (Víctor Alcázar, again credited as Vic Winner) is tormented by visions of Alaric and taunted by his best friend Hugo de Marnac (Naschy again). After a boring evening with their girlfriends (Betsabé Ruiz and Cristina Suriani) and another boring couple, Hugo agrees to take part in a seance, which Maurice refuses to attend, but that doesn't prevent him from being contacted by Alaric's restless spirit. From there they decide to drive out to Hugo's sprawling estate to see if they can locate Alaric's head, which was buried separate from his body. Not sure why they thought that was a good idea, but there it is.

Even before they can make it to the estate, they're beset by a couple of escaped criminals (another echo of Curse of the Devil) and have a run-in with the backward locals. Things don't get much better when they reach Hugo's family chateau, for soon after they dig up the chest containing Alaric's head people start falling under the warlock's sway and hacking each other up and so forth. Eventually the only servant left is the comely Elvira (Emma Cohen), who gets it on with Hugo and seems to be the only one fully prepared to beat back the forces of evil. Meanwhile, Alaric's head is reunited with his body, which is strikingly well-preserved after being entombed for 500 years, especially compared with Mabille's, which is just a skeleton. After one of the girlfriends is sacrificed to her, though, she fills out quite nicely and she and Alaric start popping in and out of people's bedrooms, enticing them to take their clothes off (both the men and the women) and horribly mutilating them. They also cause the dead to rise up and attack Elvira and Hugo, but he beats them back with fire in a sequence that plays out like Night of the Living Dead in miniature.

Overall, this film is quite the hodgepodge, but at least it's an entertaining one. Naschy's penchant for tossing random elements into the script pays off in unexpected ways and the end result fulfills the first rule of any great horror flick, as defined by Joe Bob Briggs: Anybody can die at any moment. And Carlos Aured's direction, which I thought was somewhat lackluster on Curse of the Devil, is much more focused this time out. Still, it wouldn't be long before Naschy decided to start taking the reins himself, which he did with 1976's Inquisition. Take a guess what that one's about.

Sunday, September 26, 2010
Racy women of her age, they go wild. And God knows he makes it easy for her.

In 1977, Rainer Werner Fassbinder wrote and directed a two-part adaptation of the Oskar Maria Graf novel Bolwieser for German television. It ran well over three hours and wasn't seen outside of Germany. Five years later it was edited down to feature length (with Fassbinder's consent) and subsequently released under the title The Stationmaster's Wife in the States and elsewhere. That's the version that was put out on DVD by New Yorker Video a few years back and is the only thing I can judge it by, but I got enough of the flavor of the story to know that 111 minutes was sufficient for me.

Set in Bavaria between the wars (although the time period is never made explicit until some of the characters start wearing Nazi uniforms), the film stars Kurt Raab as the stationmaster of the title and Elisabeth Trissenaar as his wife, whose chronic infidelities make him a laughingstock, especially since he's so oblivious to the way she carries on. First she gets him to agree to invest in a restaurant owned by local butcher Bernhard Helfrich at the same time she's having an affair with him. Then, when the gossip-mongers make it impossible for them to continue, she takes hairdresser Udo Kier (who also served as one of the assistant directors on the film) as her second lover, which doesn't sit well with Helfrich. The film also features Volker Spengler as one of Raab's employees, who is among the first in town to start wearing the swastika. (Always an ominous sign.)

In the end, Raab causes his own downfall by perjuring himself unnecessarily in a slander case brought by Helfrich against the busybodies who truthfully claim he's having an affair with Trissenaar. I suppose Raab is so desperate to believe she's faithful to him, despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that he thinks the court's ruling will seal the deal. Instead, all he does is seal his own fate. And to top things off, Trissenaar divorces him while he's in prison. Some stationmasters just can't get an even break.

It's evident that the person responsible for all these disappearances and killings is a madman.

I thought I was done with Paul Naschy for the present time, but that was before I discovered that one of his films, 1973's Vengeance of the Zombies, was available in its entirety on YouTube. The print's not great (in fact, it's almost impossible to tell what's going on in some of the night scenes), but I can't really complain too strenuously about that. After all, it's not like I had to pay the cost of a rental for it or anything. Still, if I want to see it under better conditions, it's one of the few Naschy films that's available on Blu-ray since it was released as part of a double feature with 1980's Night of the Werewolf (which almost makes me want to upgrade to a Blu-ray player since the DVD of that film is out of print).

Directed by León Klimovsky (of Werewolf Shadow fame), Vengeance of the Zombies gives Naschy the chance to stretch a bit since he plays both an Indian guru named Krisna (how original) and, in a horrific dream sequence, Satan himself. Satan doesn't have any lines, though, so it's as the gentle holy man that he has to do the dramatic heavy lifting. The film is set in England, where Krisna has installed himself as a spiritual leader to soul-searchers like Elvire (Carmen Romero, a.k.a. Romy or Rommy, as she's credited here), who attends one of his seances with skeptical psychology professor Lawrence (Víctor Alcázar, once again credited as Vic Winner). Soon after, Elvire is visited by the corpse of Oscar Wilde (not really) and after evading it (not too difficult) she finds the body of her father (not living). Understandably, this freaks her the hell out and she retreats to the country where Krisna has purchased an estate which was once occupied by a family of Devil worshipers. Now, I know he practices a different religion and everything, but that just makes it seem like he's asking for trouble.

Meanwhile, there's a masked villain running around attacking random people and using voodoo to raise the bodies of some of his victims. And Lawrence re-enters the picture when a baffled Scotland Yard consults him since he's something of an expert on the occult, having written books on voodoo, exorcism and the like. As for Elvire, her stay in the country isn't as restful as it could be since everybody who warns her to leave seems to come to a particularly gruesome end, but she sticks it out because of her overwhelming love for Krisna. In fact, mere minutes after discovering the hired help with her neck severed -- and getting rescued from the scythe-wielding maniac responsible by Krisna -- she's putting the moves on him, which surely violates one of the most basic tenets of the guru/follower relationship. As for how everything ties together, it would take too long to explain, but suffice it to say, it does. And for once the police show some basic competence and arrive in the nick of time. How often does that happen?

Monday, September 27, 2010
You don't know the Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, but you will. You will!

When I worked at Tower Records there were a number of films that were perennial favorites that got played in the video room time and again. One of those was 2004's The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, which perfectly captured the look and feel of cheap science fiction epics of the '50s. From the stilted, exposition-heavy dialogue to the wooden acting (which occasionally gave way to wild overacting), from the awkward blocking to the lame fight choreography, from the unconvincing miniatures to the jerry-rigged props, The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra was a spoof made by people who evidently had great affection for the proud filmmaking tradition they were aping. And chief among its architects was writer/director Larry Blamire, who also plays dunderheaded scientist Dr. Paul Armstrong, who drags his doting wife Betty (Fay Masterson) up the mountains with him so he can find a fallen meteorite made of a mysterious substance called atmosphereum. He's far from the only being with a vested interest in it, though.

First there's the slimy Dr. Roger Fleming (Brian Howe), who is searching for Cadavra Cave, which contains the Lost Skeleton of Cadavra, which turns out to be a surly and abusive bag of bones and can only be brought back to life by atmosphereum. Then there's aliens Kro-Bar and Lattis (Andrew Parks and Susan McConnell), who crash-land on Earth and require atmosphereum if they ever hope to return to their home planet of Marva again. There's only one meteor, though, so alliances are formed, then broken, then formed again as the competing interests fight over it (although it must be said that Paul is so dense that he hardly even knows what's going on). Also thrown into the mix are Jennifer Blaire as the seductive Animala (who's created out of four woodland creatures to be Dr. Fleming's companion) and Dan Conroy as the helpful Ranger Brad, who warns the group about some horrible mutilations just before getting horribly mutilated himself. (Oh, did I mention there's a mutant alien wandering around mutilating people? Well, there is.)

What makes The Lost Skeleton Cadavra such a re-watchable film is the great dialogue, which straddles the line between stupid and earnest, as when Paul tells Betty, "Dinner was delicious, honey. Keep cooking like that and I won't be able to move, let alone do science." Then there's the dialogue that's completely redundant, as when Lattis says to Kro-Bar, "Come, let us ready the preparations," or when Dr. Fleming calls them "Aliens... from outer space." The most quotable character, though, has to be the Skeleton, whose abrupt "I sleep now" was in heavy rotation among Tower staffers. I'm also fond of its promise to Dr. Fleming that "When I am brought back to life, together, you and I will rule the world together." And later on, when Dr. Fleming has double-crossed the aliens, he says, "Sorry, I'd love to stay, but I have a skeleton to bring to life," and the film immediate cuts to the Skeleton, which says, "That would be me." Its most prophetic line has to be the indignant "I will return!" as it's being hurled into a ravine, for five years later it would return in The Lost Skeleton Returns Again. I must have missed when it returned the first time, though. I may have to get back to you on that.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Do you ever wonder what's out there? I mean, what's really out there?

I felt a pronounced sense of déjà vu last spring when I first saw the poster for Alien Trespass. Not only was it a throwback to the kind of poster art that advertised sci-fi films about alien invaders and bug-eyed monsters back in the '50s, but it also struck me as doubly redundant in a decade that had already produced The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra. Whereas Lost Skeleton sought to replicate the Roger Corman-style quickies of the era, though, Alien Trespass sets its sights on big-budget epics like The War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still and This Island Earth. As a result, it's a lot less goofy than Lost Skeleton -- and a whole lot less entertaining.

Directed by R.W. Goodwin (a veteran TV writer/producer most closely associated with The X-Files) and written by Steven Fisher (who concocted the story with producer James Swift, whose only other credit is as "Forehead Man" in Larry Blamire's Trail of the Screaming Forehead), Alien Trespass tries to pass itself off as a bona fide lost film from 1957 -- the DVD includes a brief introduction that makes reference to the legal limbo it fell into when its star got into a salary dispute with the studio, and the film itself is preceded by a vintage-looking newsreel that goes over the exact same ground -- but it doesn't quite convince thanks to the too-polished performances and the film's reliance on digital effects. (To its credit, it tries to keep the latter to a minimum, but they're still distracting.) As for the story, it's about a flying saucer that crash-lands on Earth and the lengths its pilot has to go to when the bug-eyed monster gets loose and starts roaming the countryside liquefying people. In other words, pretty much your basic set-up, and the film plays everything so straight that it's hard to tell how to react. A little archness here and there wouldn't have hurt.

For what it's worth, the actors are great at playing everything close to the vest, with Eric McCormack as the pipe-smoking scientist whose body is taken over by the alien (shades of I Married a Monster from Outer Space), causing him to act strangely around his wife (Jody Thompson) and everyone else in town, Jenni Baird as the put-upon waitress who dreams of moving on to bigger and better things, and Robert Patrick as the requisite cop who doesn't believe it when the teenagers tell him there's a bug-eyed monster on the loose. I also recognized Dan Lauria (who played the father on The Wonder Years) as the police chief who's only two days away from retirement (an incongruous reference that jerks you out of the story) when the slime hits the fan. And speaking of slime, there's a neat meta-joke when the teenagers go to see The Blob and the monster attacks the audience at the same time the blob attacks the audience on the screen. Too bad The Blob wasn't released until the year after this one is supposed to be have been made and shelved. That kind of spoils the joke.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010
The jungle's funny. It does strange things. I saw a man try to eat his own head.

Seven years after wrapping The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra (which, despite its 2004 release, was actually shot in 2001), writer/director Larry Blamire got the gang back together -- and brought in some fresh recruits -- to make the inevitable sequel, The Lost Skeleton Returns Again. Released in 2009 (and now on DVD -- along with the "old, dark house" homage Dark and Stormy Night -- from Shout! Factory), the film brings back most of the original cast, some as the same characters (Blamire and Fay Masterson as Dr. Paul and Betty Armstrong, Andrew Parks and Susan McConnell as aliens Kro-Bar and Lattis, Jennifer Blaire as Animala) and some (Brian Howe, Dan Conroy) as the identical twins of the characters who died in the first film. (Howe's take on Dr. Fleming's well-meaning brother Peter is a delight, as is Conroy's ultra-earnest Jungle Brad.)

This time out, instead of atmosphereum the hunt is on for a rare substance called Jerranium 90, which can only be found in the jungles of the Amazon. By sheer coincidence that's where Paul went missing two years before, prompting Betty to accompany G-Man Frank Dietz to South America in search of her husband -- who has become a bitter, grizzled drunk -- and the Jerranium 90, which has been traced to the Valley of the Monsters. They're not the only interested party, though. Peter Fleming tags along with the skull of the Lost Skeleton tucked under his arm because he's under its evil influence ("I hate it when you laugh like that. It makes me really uncomfortable," he says in a rare moment of lucidity), and there's a another group -- thief Kevin Quinn, Sidney Greenstreet stand-in Daniel Roebuck, and devious scientist Trish Geiger -- out to get it for themselves, with Kro-Bar and Lattis acting as their guides to keep an eye on them. Eventually they find that the Jerranium 90 is held sacred by the Cantaloupe People (whose queen, Alison Martin, has to be related to Andrea Martin because there's no way she can't be), but when they steal the tribe's Jerranium 90-rich idol it summons the Magraclop (Frank Ippolito, who also built the monster costumes with the Chiodo Brothers) and that's one creature you don't want chasing you -- no matter how slowly it moves.

The Lost Skeleton Returns Again looks like it was made on a larger budget than the first film, but Blamire uses the Amazonian setting as an excuse to cut to incongruous stock footage of jungle animals (a common practice in adventure films and serials of the '30, '40s and '50s). This is even more pronounced after the film switches to color (which occurs when the characters enter the Valley of the Monsters) and the stock footage is still in grainy black and white. And Blamire hasn't lost his knack for loopy dialogue, as when Geiger is propositioned by the Lost Skeleton and says, "Never made a deal with a talking skull before. I suppose there's a first time for everything." For the Lost Skeleton, though, I doubt there will be a third time. The Magraclop pretty much sees to that.

Thursday, September 30, 2010
If you want something bad, you have to fight for it.

For reasons that aren't worth going into at the moment, I passed on Scott Pilgrim vs. the World when it was first released. This in itself wouldn't be so extraordinary, but a lot of other people followed my lead and it was soon branded a "major financial disappointment" (which is a polite way of saying it flopped spectacularly). Still, it managed to hang on in Bloomington for a full seven weeks (which is a lot more than this summer's similarly underperforming MacGruber can say), so since it's about to leave, I made a point of catching its penultimate screening in town.

I've never read Bryan Lee O'Malley's graphic novel series, so I can't judge how faithful it is (or isn't), but whatever director Edgar Wright and his co-screenwriter Michael Bacall had to do to turn it into a film, it worked. Set in snowy Toronto (which gets to play itself on film for once), Scott Pilgrim stars Michael Cera as the title character, the bass player in a fledgling power trio called Sex Bob-omb (which I had no idea was a video game reference until I looked it up on Wikipedia) who's dating a high school student with the improbable name of Knives Chau (Ellen Wong). Everyone from his band mates (drummer/ex-girlfriend Alison Pill, lead singer/guitarist Mark Webber) to his gay roommate (a hilariously deadpan Kieran Culkin) to his responsible sister (Anna Kendrick) refer to Knives as his "fake high school girlfriend," so you'd think they'd be supportive when he falls for somebody more age-appropriate, but since that turns out to be the unapproachable Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), literally "the girl of his dreams," they can see the obstacles he'll have to overcome before he does.

And what obstacles they are. No sooner does Scott make his first stumbling move then he finds he has to fight all seven of Ramona's Evil Exes (a League whose ranks include Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Mae Whitman and Jason Schwartzman) if he wants to continue dating her. Meanwhile, he's also trying to get over an ex-girlfriend (Brie Larson) who dumped him when she became a famous singer and trying to figure out how to let Knives down easy when he breaks up with her. (The fact that it takes him a while to do either says a lot about his character.) There's a lot more to the story, of course (if there's one film that earned the description "action-packed," it's this one), but it's the surface trappings -- the video game-style fights, the comic-like transitions, the brash musical numbers -- that will either draw you in or push you away. Maybe if this film had been marketed better I would have been pulled in a lot sooner, but hey, better late than never, right?

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