Monday, August 15, 2011

James Bond is Invincible

It's probably no surprise to anyone here that I'm a big fan of James Bond (even if he is a bit problematic -- especially in the much-beloved Connery films).

I made this little video for our favorite British super spy for the Club Vivid dance party at Vividcon. I hope you enjoy:

(the credited vidder is an alias I use in fannish pursuits)

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Signals From Left Field: Wheels On Meals (1984)

When I was a wee lad, I saw Jackie Chan in 1981's Cannonball Run and immediately became a fan of his infinitely kinetic, often comedic style of martial arts.  I'd use my limited resources to see him in other movies, like 1980's The Big Brawl, which I didn't see until the mid-80's.  The 90's rolled around, and I somehow got in touch with a VHS rental-by-mail company which predated Netflix by several years.  They had a great international catalog, and lo and behold...there was Jackie Chan and a wealth of his films from the 1980's, when he enjoyed a hugely successful run as one of a wonderful action-comedy trio.

As a child, Chan attended and studied at the Peking Opera, where he met Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao.  The three were fast friends in the grueling school, learning among other things, how to use their martial arts and gymnastic prowess to the fullest.  They moved on into film, first as extras, then as marquee stars, directors, and choreographers.  The 1980's were probably their busiest and most prolific, as they churned out hit after hit.  They made films separately, but when they worked together, that was where the box office magic happened.

Their chemistry was as undeniable as the differences in their styles.  Chan was the guy with the moves, and was the lead face in nearly every work they did.  Hung was the chubby guy with the incredible comic timing and deceptive quickness.  Biao was the smallest and the most acrobatic, using flips and lightning-fast moves.  Where they were different in their styles and appearances, the influences were the same:  classics like Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin were evident in the trio's mannerisms and stunts.  They mixed martial arts with old school slapstick comedy and created a run of wonderfully whimsical movies during the 80's like Project A, Dragons Forever, and the Lucky Stars series.

One of the surefire staples of this period was Wheels On Meals (aka Kuàicān Chē, Spartan X, and Powerman among other titles), made in 1984 and directed by Hung.  It's considered a favorite among classic Hong Kong action film fans not only for its obvious goofiness, but for the thrilling fight scenes, especially the climactic battle between Chan and real-life martial arts champion Benny "The Jet" Urquidez.

The plot is fairly simple and full of gags.  Thomas (Chan) and David (Biao) run a food cart in Barcelona, Spain.  During the day, they sell burgers and egg rolls in a popular plaza, and by night, they train in martial arts.  The fighting skills come in handy when they have to run off a motorcycle gang terrorizing the plaza.  When visiting David's father in a mental hospital, they're smitten by Sylvia (Spanish actress Lola Forner), the daughter of a woman David's dad falls for in the hospital.  They run into Sylvia in the city, where she turns out to be a thief, posing as a hooker to rob men.  However, there's more to Sylvia than meets the eye.  Private detective Moby (Hung) is looking for her, as are some guys with more sinister motives.  Seems Sylvia is the long-lost heir to a massive fortune and a local crime boss, Mondale (Pepe Sancho), wants to force her hand over the goods, preferably by marriage.

After the boys rescue her a couple times, Sylvia joins them, working as a waitress for their food cart.  Eventually, Mondale sends his big boys (Urquidez and yet another real-life champion Keith Vitali) after Sylvia and they manage to kidnap her.  The good guys can't let this happen, so they stage a daring rescue in Mondale's castle stronghold, taking on his henchmen and engaging in some tremendous martial arts battle, including the one I mentioned between Chan and Urquidez.  While that is truly one of the best martial arts battles to grace the screen, you can't take away from the final fight between Biao and Vitali, involving many flips, plush furniture, and a pineapple as a weapon.

If you get a hold of this sweet little film, don't be put off by the dubbing.  It can be excruciating at times, to be honest, but it's a very small price to pay to watch Chan, Biao, and Hung work their magic.  The movies they made brimmed with eternal optimism:  we will beat the bad guy and we will win the day.  The jokes and gags are light-hearted and hammy.  The fights and stunts are breathtaking, and they were an important component of Hong Kong cinema for years.  Wheels On Meals exemplifies those qualities and adds the beautiful scenery of Barcelona into the mix.  And yes, the draw is the Chan-Urquidez main event, a physical, sometimes brutal, sometimes funny controlled brawl.  There are highlights within the highlights, such as Chan's character using positive thinking to change his style, tickling as an offensive weapon, and a kick by Urquidez that literally blows out some candles (which I understand was not a trick).  Speaking of chemistry, Chan and Urquidez also battled in the wonderful Dragons Forever and that was a show-stoppers as well.  They just work so well as foes.

If you only know Chan from his Rush Hour movies or more watered-down Hollywood releases, or Hung from his short-lived but fun American TV show Martial Law, then you really should treat yourself to Meals On Wheels, or any one of their 80's heyday movies.  They're a blast, and may have you pulling a ligament trying to imitate their moves.

Not that I speak from experience.

Now enjoy the amazing final fight scene:

Monday, June 6, 2011

52 Perfect Movies: Young Frankenstein (1974)

"Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain into a 7 1/2 foot tall, 54-inch wide GORILLA?!"

When one thinks of a "perfect film", it's more often than not a drama that comes to mind. In the course of this series, there are not very many comedies that make the cut, let alone ones as downright zany and farcical as Young Frankenstein. Yet there can be no denying the sheer genius of this, one of the most perfect comic motion pictures ever made. In a career highlighted by some damn funny movies, Mel Brooks truly outdid himself with this, the one he'll always be most remembered for.

Sure, there have been others, such as Blazing Saddles and The Producers, that come to mind as comedy classics. But none seem to touch the sublime combination of humor, homage and pathos that this one does. It's very easy to see that Brooks has a deep-seated, genuine affection for the Universal horror flicks he is parodizing here. It is exuded in every moment of screen time, and comes across in every single performance. It is a labor of love, and a joy to behold.

It's no wonder that Brooks would repeatedly revisit the formula he started with this film, of spoofing a favorite film genre. It works so well here, that it's only natural to try and recreate it. And while it did work again a few times, it never clicked quite as well as it does here. This is a film so good that it can actually stand amongst the very films to which it is paying tribute.

Most importantly, it's funny as hell. Mel Brooks has been accused of employing stale humor at times in his movies, but that is never further from the truth than in the work he put into Young Frankenstein. To be fair, a great deal of this can also be attributed to the great Gene Wilder, who conceptualized and co-wrote the project with Brooks. In fact, I'd submit that the movie's genius may be more attributable to Wilder than to Brooks.

Not only does Wilder excel as the co-creator, but also as the film's star. In no other film is his natural frenetic energy put to better use--this is a comic performance for the ages. And he's not alone, either, as the movie is rich with brilliant comic performances from the likes of Teri Garr, Gene Hackman, Peter Boyle as the Monster, and of course the late, great Madeline Kahn doing her best old-time movie starlet impression.

And then there are Cloris Leachman and Marty Feldman, two masters of comedic timing whose characterizations as Frau Blucher and Eye-Gor add so much to the film. Not to mention Kenneth Mars in a role directly spoofing that of Lionel Atwill in Son of Frankenstein. Together with the infectiously brilliant Wilder in the lead, this troupe of outstanding performers represent one of the finest comedy ensembles ever put together on film.

Like the very best parodies, Young Frankenstein bursts with genuine admiration and affection for the source material. It looks and feels like a Universal horror film, and is bursting with references and in-jokes targeted at ardent fans. The hermit scene alone is so memorable that for many, it has actually eclipsed the original scene from Bride of Frankenstein, upon which it was based. That says a lot.

There are so many timeless set pieces and gags scattered throughout by the keen comedic minds of Brooks and Wilder. The old "walk this way" routine with Eye-Gor. The doctor's ludicrous medical school presentation. "Abby Normal". Frau Blucher and the neighing horses. And of course, "Puttin' on the Ritz." And yet, even in a comedy as ridiculous as this one, there is room for genuine pathos and gravity, as can be witnessed, for example, in the scene in which Frankenstein and his monster come to an understanding while sharing a jail cell. This is more than just Brooks and his vaudeville schtick. This is comedy on a whole other level.

There is a reason why Young Frankenstein stands out from the rest of Mel Brooks' body of work--why the rest of his career was arguably an attempt to equal its greatness. With the help of Gene Wilder, he was able to craft something that has truly stood the test of time as the ultimate love note to a venerable subgenre of film that Brooks, Wilder and so many others hold so dear. Most importantly of all, it is uproariously funny, and a rare comedy that stands up to endless repeated viewings. Call it Frankenstein. Call if Fronkensteen. I call it brilliance.

NEXT UP: The Godfather Part II (1974)

Thursday, May 12, 2011

All About Eve (1950)

Last night I had a powerful moment of regret while watching All About Eve on the big screen. For the first time in a long time, I regretted being so young. It’s funny of course that I should be watching Bette Davis and all of Margot Channing’s reluctant acceptance of her age and rue the fact that I had been born in the 80s and not the 40s. Yet, there I was wishing that before I had seen just about any other movie in my life, I had seen All About Eve first. It goes without saying that this wish is due in part to the fact that All About Eve is a wonderful film but my regret also has to do with the fact that all I can think about while watching it is Showgirls.

These kind of moments happen quite often in my new life as a born again cinephile. I’ll see a classic film that I should have seen years ago and then have that moment of “Ooooh, THAT’S where that’s from”. The depressing thing is that most people my age won’t ever get to take that second step of seeing where the “original” came into the picture. They will instead hear talk of showbiz backstabbing and understudy shenanigans and immediately think of Jessie Spano being naked and licking stripper poles.

I’m not proud that my mind immediately brings parallels of what is traditionally thought of as the worst movie of all time, but would you believe me if I said that the existence of Showgirls is one of the things that makes me appreciate All About Eve the most?

It may be "all about Eve", but it's really about the women. In a feat that has still gone unchallenged today, All About Eve is the only film in history to have four of its actresses be nominated for an Oscar. The women in the film are in fact the stars while the men all seem to take supporting roles and remain diligently in the background as important plot devices rather than cold hard characters. The heartless and smarter than he appears Addison Dewitt (George Sanders) comes dangerously close, but ultimately we revel in the even more heartless Eve Harrington.

The women are scene stealer's in every way possible and it’s refreshing to see this, even as Bette Davis rifles out her monologue about the plight of a woman’s career and the cruel realization that you aren’t a woman until you’re married. In a time when women were considered little more than house wives or secretaries, the women in All About Eve maintain a steady stream of gumption and power. With every martini that Bette Davis drowns and every time time that she says she hates men, I can’t help but do a secret fist pump of glorification.

Bette Davis, who thrives in what is easily her best role, is still capable of making audiences roar with laughter and applause. And indeed she continues to speak the truth to us today, guzzling martinis and pointing out the unfairness of a man’s immunity to aging. It is this particular scene that fills me with an instant revelation of the idea that virtually every movie that tackles this same issue was in part inspired by Bette and her biting witticism. Goldie Hawn immediately comes to mind in The First Wives Club, downing martinis in a bar and lamenting the fact that as she grows older, she will be playing lead character’s mothers while Sean Connery will get to play lead character’s boyfriends. It’s never more apparent than in that scene, that Margot Channing is the mother of all great female characters that we love.

And then there’s Eve. Eve, whom until last night I always thought was the naïve hero in All About Eve, magically transforms into a grotesque villain of epic proportions. Her evolution into a monster modeled effortlessly on Margot is thrilling to watch. She may look the part, and talk the part, but we know she lacks the most important piece—Margot’s character and heart. Margot after all manages to have friends despite her diva-like attitude and desire to retain her stardom, which by the film’s end is something we know Eve will never have.

The evolution is subtle at first; Eve dresses in clothes similar to Margot, then begins carrying herself differently and it’s not long before we start wondering when Eve will light up her first cigarette in a simultaneous motion of relief and despair. It’s not until the final scene when Eve’s transformation is complete and the torch has passed, that Eve finally inhales her evils and sulks into the sofa. Eve’s charms wear quickly away after those first few scenes and soon I start recalling eerie hints of Single White Female behavior.

You can spot Eve’s mask a mile away if you pay attention, her breathlessness in her storytelling and the crafty way she bats her eyelashes at just the right moment, prove that she’s been an actress from the start. Eve—so beautiful and so ugly at the same time. We take such pleasure when Addison reveals her true past that we forget she’s still a human... then again—is she?

It is indeed in Addison’s reveal that I start drawing the strongest parallel to Showgirls. I can’t help feeling déjà vu as Addison rifles off truth after truth. I can’t shake the feeling that I’ve been here before, and I have. Kyle Maclachan admitting to Nomi Malone that he knows all about who she really is. And it’s pretty much the same exact scene in All About Eve only trashier and about prostitution. That’s all Showgirls is anyways, a trashier version of All About Eve, yet it still grants me a bigger appreciation for the film. Not like it needs it of course—All About Eve is surely one of the best movies I have seen. Riddled with sharp, biting dialogue and writing, unique shots and scene after scene of brilliance. But it is the shallowness and the carelessness of Showgirls that reminds me of the depth and beauty that resides in All About Eve. A timeless film that continues to remind us what greatness truly is.

Oddly enough, the line that best summarizes All About Eve comes from Showgirls after all. Cristal Connors, laying in bed with broken legs after being pushed down the stairs by Nomi Malone grants her one last piece of wisdom, “There’s always someone younger and hungrier coming down the stairs after you”, she says, right before Nomi flees town after beating a man to death while topless-- and damn, was she right.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

52 Perfect Movies: The Exorcist (1973)

"I'm the Devil. Now kindly undo these straps."

Horror films very often catch a bad rap, particularly from the "mainstream" film community, whatever that even means. The bottom line is, they are often considered no more than dispensible B-movies, the equivalent of pulp novels or comic books. Good for a thrill and a little fun, but then quickly forgotten. Needless to say, there are legions of serious horror fans who can tell you that this generalization is ridiculous, but it's rare that the casual movie-going audience is made to understand that horror can deliver some high-quality work--films that can stay with you not just on the basis of how frightening they are, but simply by virtue of how great they are as cinema.

The Exorcist was one of the first films of the modern era to really do this, to cross over into the mainstream consciousness and be recognized as a fine piece of film-making in its own right. To a certain extent, Rosemary's Baby had paved the way a few years before, but The Exorcist is far and away the superior film, and it forced critics and audiences alike to rethink their stereotyped opinions of horror in general.

Nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, The Exorcist is the work of William Friedkin, one of the geniuses who led the way during the formation of the new, auteur-driven Hollywood in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Just the fact that he had agreed to helm the picture gave it instant credibility, and the talent he brought to the table helped transform William Peter Blatty's potboiler novel into one of the most important pieces of 1970s cinema.

The Exorcist is not only a superbly made film, but it also succeeds as horror because it is supremely scary. Granted, such a quality is largely subjective, but the fact remains that The Exorcist is more often than not the film that gets mentioned whenever anyone is trying to determine "the scariest movie ever made." It may not be so for everyone, but just the fact that it works so well as a horror movie while also being such a flawless piece of cinema is quite an impressive achievement.

During an era when realism in film was being stressed, The Exorcist was a bit of an anomaly. But, interestingly enough, it works exactly because it brings that realist aesthetic to the material. It should also not be forgotten that it remains the highest-grossing horror film ever made. So here you have a motion picture that was a rousing success financially, reached the high watermark of its genre, and also is recognized as one of the finest films ever made. Not a bad trifecta at all for a movie about a little girl possessed by the Devil.

As with all great films, what makes The Exorcist work in the end is the script, and the performances. And as with most films that surpass the novels on which they were based, the screenplay, adapted by Blatty, improves upon the original novel, delivering characters who live and breath and make us care very deeply for them. Father Karras and Regan MacNeil in particular, along with Regan's put-upon mother Chris, are all realized in startling fashion. These are real people in the real world, faced with very real struggles, despite the bizarre, over-the-top form which these struggles take.

A teenaged Linda Blair really makes us feel for the plight of Regan, the pure, virginal young girl who is so viciously and cruelly taken over by the demon (voiced in a highly effective fashion by Mercedes McCambridge). Set up in the beginning the way she is, it is truly tragic to watch her spiral into chaos, and to see the wholesome relationship with her mother so thoroughly devastated. And speaking of her mother, Ellen Burstyn makes the most of the best role of her career here, communicating all the desperation of a helpless mother faced with an unthinkable threat to her child about which she can do nothing.

But this movie truly belongs to Jason Miller, whose agnostic Father Karras represents the moral center of the entire narrative, and the character with whom viewers are invited to identify. He is the everyman forced to find his inner strength and redeem himself in order to defend good from evil. Miller's performance is so powerful, in fact, that it completely overshadows that of the very capable Max Von Sydow, who actually plays the titular exorcist, Father Merrin. Also memorable in a supporting role is the great Lee J. Cobb as Lt. William Kinderman.

The Exorcist still very much has the power to frighten on a very visceral, intellectual level. More than just shock value, the terror on display here is deep and profound, stemming from real spiritual concerns. And even though most do not really believe in the Devil or demonic possession, the notion of outside evil penetrating our world, and profaning that which is pure and pristine, is something that tends to touch us on a gut level, tapping into our primal fear of the unknown. This is a horror film in the truest sense of the term, and accomplishes that which few horror films ever really do--it fills us with absolute dread.

The Exorcist forever changed the horror genre in cinema, and was a part of a bold, innovative era in moviemaking which we haven't seen the like of since. There are those who snicker at its dire religious themes, who try to laugh off the deep-seated anxiety this film provokes. If anything, their nervous dismissals only serve to further establish the film's raw power. This is a movie that needs to be revisited by those who know it more as a cultural touchstone than an actual movie. It is only then that its impressive power is truly revealed.

NEXT UP: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

52 Perfect Movies: The Godfather (1972)

"I'm gonna make him an offer he can't refuse..."

Well, here we are. A while back, I committed myself to this series on what I consider to be absolutely perfect motion pictures...and as far as I'm concerned, we are at the epicenter of that list. Because Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather is not just any perfect film--it is the perfect film. Even amongst screen masterpieces, it stands head and shoulders above the pack, as what may very well be the ultimate expression of filmmaking yet seen.

In my humble opinion, and the opinion of countless others, The Godfather is the greatest motion picture ever made. It is the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel; it is Mozart's Requiem; it is King Lear. Filmmaking may be a flawed art compromised to a certain by being a form of popular entertainment first and foremost--but all that aside, it can be safely said that it literally gets no better than this.

Do I even have to sell you on why The Godfather deserves such praise? The epic story of one family's corruption of the American dream and of the shocking effects of unbridled power, it is a work of sublime beauty, startling violence and technical mastery, all rolled into one transcendent viewing experience. In simple terms, it is the type of film which, once it is discovered while changing TV channels (usually when one gets to AMC), must be watched for the remainder of its running time.

Mario Puzo's novel is lifted by the once-impeccably gifted hands of Coppola to heights I would dare say even the author himself had never dreamed. With his accomplice in genius, the legendary cinematographer Gordon Willis behind the camera, Coppola approaches the material with a singularity of vision that is all but unparalleled in American cinema. This is Greek tragedy transformed into pop culture. This is that great, hardly attainable feat: entertainment both fit for mainstream consumption, and masterful enough to become high art in the truest sense.

With a cast of characters highlighted by career-defining performances from the likes of Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan and Robert Duvall, it is the kind of film in which plot is secondary, and character comes first. And for my money, that's really where it's at, and the true test of whether or not a piece of narrative will stand the test of time. It is also why lovers of the film (is there anyone who doesn't?) can watch it and rewatch it, gaining more pleasure from it every time.

Brando brings a complicated pathos to the role of Don Vito Corleone that is dismissed as a caricature only by the most cynical of moviegoers. Rather, the Don as played by Brando is a man desperately trying to hold his family together with the good intentions that he doesn't realize will always pave the road to hell. His son Michael (Pacino) is the moral center and narrative lynch-pin of the film; as we watch his descent from squeaky-clean war hero to cold and calculating mob boss, we can't help but feel we are witnessing a fall from grace as timeless as any depicted in fiction since the dawn of civilization.

Duvall deserves so much more credit than he ever gets for a restrained yet brilliant performance as consigliere Tom Hagen, an adopted son to the Don who in many ways would've made the best don himself, were he not a non-Italian. And then there is Caan, so utterly perfect as the hot-blooded Sonny Corleone that he has been recognized over the years by numerous Italian-American organizations, despite not actually being Italian in real life. Add to this unforgettable performances from the likes of John Cazale (Fredo), Talia Shire (Connie), Lenny Montana (Luca Brasi), Diane Keaton (Kay) and many more, and you have a veritable smorgasbord of gifted actors doing their finest work.

Nino Rota's brilliant and iconic score needs no introduction, and almost no justification for how powerful, moving and completely gorgeous it is, not to mention entirely crucial to the impact the movie makes on the viewer. This is film music of the highest order, lending an air of larger-than-life tragedy and gravity that compliments Puzo, Coppola and Willis' work with a level of perfection seldom, if ever achieved. Just a note or two of the score, whether it be the Main Title, Sicilian Pastorale, or Halls of Hear theme, can conjure up instant emotional reactions.

Much more than a simple gangster film, The Godfather is Americana itself--the tale of the immigrant and his place in the nation, of the bonds of family and how they can be warped to serve greed and aggression. It challenges our notions of good and evil, often drawing criticism, in fact, for the way it arguably glorifies the world it portrays and glamorizes the actions of those who live in it. However, when watching the film, one cannot help but be lost in this glorification, whether it be morally sound or not.

It is a testament to the power of the work that even though it paints for us the picture of a man twisted and transformed by the effects of power, we cannot help but marvel at the beauty of it all. Is this irresponsible? Is it cynical? I propose that it is neither--rather, it is art. Plain and simple. Take it for what it is. As for me, I choose to take it as the most thoroughly realized piece of storytelling ever put to celluloid.

Francis Ford Coppola never again reached the heights of The Godfather, unless it was arguably with his almost-nearly-as-perfect sequel two years later. But that isn't a slight against Coppola--after all, no filmmaker ever has quite reached the heights of The Godfather. "I believe in America" is the fitting first line of the film, uttered by Bonasera in the Don's study on his daughter's wedding day. For this is a tale of America first and foremost, for good or ill, warts and all--it holds a mirror up to us. And having basked in the majesty of The Godfather, the jewel of American filmmaking, I must say that I believe in it as well.

NEXT UP: The Exorcist (1973)

Monday, March 14, 2011

A Few Words on Cinematic Titanic

I was back in Phoenix this weekend to join the family (mother, mother's husband, sister, sister-in-law, sister's mother-in-law) for one of the most delightful stage experiences I've had in a long time: Cinematic Titanic Live.

What is Cinematic Titanic? Well, it's one of two continuations of the brilliant cable series Mystery Science Theater 3000 (the other is Mike Nelson's Rifftrax). Cinematic Titanic takes five members of the MST3K cast -- creator Joel Hodgson, Trace Beaulieu, J. Elvis Weinstein, Frank Conniff, and Mary Jo Pehl -- and has them "riff" on bad movies. On their non-live DVDs, the group perform in silhouette, much as Joel and the 'bots did on MST3K. I've been a fan of MST3K since before I was a pre-teen and I continue to be a fan of its offspring projects, but especially Cinematic Titanic.

Let me say this: seeing this group on DVD is nothing compared to seeing them live. It's not just that the immediacy of the performance allowed for on-the-fly riffs both topical (re: the Wisconsin union labor crisis) and localized (re: a bunch of stuff, but most memorably John McCain). It's that good ol' fashioned live show energy, the great feedback of give and take. At one point, and my memory is fuzzy so I might get this wrong, a character in the movie (Rattlers, if anyone is interested) said something like, "There are better ways to die" and Weinstein riffed "Sure! Just ask David Carradine." There was a smattering of uncomfortable laughter and he shot back "Uh, Michael Hutchence, then?" The line firmly recrossed, the audience was back with him and the riffing could go on.

The previous paragraph demonstrates something painfully true: live comedy retold is almost always retold badly. Even with an eidetic memory (which I'm nowhere close to having) and a beat-by-beat breakdown, I would fail to pass along what a great time I had.

I can say that there were moments of failure, mostly in the pre-riffing warmup acts. Conniff's standup was painfully unfunny and labored and Hodgson's very welcome performance of the KTMA-era MST3K theme song was marred a bit when he forgot some of the lyrics (but then again, I should give the guy a break: that version of the song is over 20 years old). I will say this, though, J. Elvis Weinstein's Elvis Costello impersonation while performing "Watching the Detectives" was uncanny and warmup act Dave (Gruber) Allen was hilarious.

The movie itself was appropriately awful; I can say this in full confidence because I'd actually seen it without benefit of comedic accompaniment. If Cinematic Titanic releases a DVD of their Rattlers performance any time soon, I'd recommend picking it up. It's a film just bad enough to make for good riffing fodder, but not so bad that it's dead boring.

Mostly this post is to direct people, out of a sheer sense of community service, to the Cinematic Titanic website to either find a show coming to their area or to buy a DVD. This is a project that the folks involved are doing simply for the love of the game and it deserves as much support as possible.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

52 Perfect Movies: Once Upon a Time in the West (1969)

"How can you trust a man who wears both a belt and suspenders? The man can't even trust his own pants..."

Upon first viewing Sergio Leone's masterpiece, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, I couldn't help but think to myself, "This is the epitome of the western. It can get no better than this." Leone's unique, European-tinted vision of the American West was so fascinatingly realized that I couldn't imagine it ever being surpassed. And it is perhaps the greatest testament to Leone's genius that he did actually surpass it--although that may be open to argument.

For as sublime and transcendent as The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is, I am now of the opinion that Leone actually outdid himself just a couple of years later with that magnum opus of the spaghetti western, Once Upon a Time in the West. For whatever reason, it gets a lot less attention than its predecessor (perhaps owing to the lack of Clint Eastwood), and it deserves a lot more recognition. TGTBATU may be quite the tough act to follow, but it is my opinion that Once Upon a Time in the West not only follows it with style, but actually overshadows it in terms of quality.

Ennio Morricone's score is just as iconic, if not more so, washing over the film and commanding the viewer's attention. It literally merges with the narrative in a way that happens in very few films. Whether it's Frank's jaw-dropping theme of villainy, the happy-go-lucky Cheyenne motif, or the unforgettable Harmonica riff, this is movie music at its finest. It may not have produced the big hit that TGTBATU main theme became, but no matter. This is music worth listening to and savoring, even without the accompanying images.

Joined with the images, we get a visual feast realized in a way few films ever are. Leone's brilliant cinematographer, Tonino Delli Colli, who had previously outdone himself on TGTBATU, once again triumphs, with spellbinding shot after spellbinding shot. For those who thought John Ford was the high watermark of the Western, this is material to give one pause and force a reconsideration. So many of these shots have been mimiced so many times by inferior filmmakers that it's easy for their power to be lost. But this is the kind of movie that requires viewer sto strip all preconceived notions and thoroughly immerse themselves in the experience.

Charles Bronson is no Eastwood, but the majesty and quiet, almost native nobility he brings to the role of Harmonica thoroughly grounds the film. He is truly a classic Western hero, and one only wonders what would have happened if Clint had actually accepted the role, as Leone wanted him to. I happen to believe, that as great as Eastwood was, Once Upon a Time in the West benefits from the new blood. Eastwood's Man With No Name had run its course.

Then we have Henry Fonda, whom Leone specifically chose in order to achieve the jarring juxtaposition of having one of cinema's most beloved figures playing a deeply evil, despicable character. In an interview once, Leone stated clearly that when Fonda's blue-eyed visage first appears on screen, staring down a little boy he's about to murder, he wanted his audience to mutter to themselves, "Holy shit! That's Henry Fonda!" And that was indeed my reaction, having been so trained to believe in the pathos of Fonda's screen presence. Nevertheless, he manages to turn Frank into one of the most enjoyable screen baddies of all time.

Jason Robards excels as the very memorable Cheyenne, an amoral outlaw with a heart of gold who gets caught in the middle of the epic conflict. The gorgeous Claudia Cardinale is far more than just eye candy, once again adding a unique Mediterranean flavor to one of the Western's most tried and true tropes, that of the beautiful widow with a coveted inheritance. Together, the film's four leads form an ensemble which, for my money, is more effective than that of any Leone western.

To watch Once Upon a Time in the West is to experience all that the cinematic medium is capable of, in pure, distilled form. The script, spare as always in dialogue, nevertheless crackles along with kinetic energy, and boasts one of the single most gripping opening scenes in movie history--with barely a single word uttered. This is the kind of scene that film students should be required to watch in order to understand the power that can be achieved without having to rely primarily on language. Leone and his collaborators understand that they are working in the genre of another country and language, and so choose--very effectively--to work visually, first and foremost. And we get to enjoy the fruits of that effort, which is one of the great pleasures of film.

It's almost as if Leone had learned so much about making Westerns via his previous trilogy, which began with A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, that he felt the need to put all of those lessons to their best use by making one massive, stand-alone film that would synthesize everything good about the previous three, and take it to whole other level of greatness. And that is what he does, transforming the American West into a mythic place beyond any historical reality.

There are those who will always prefer The Good, The Bad and the Ugly to Once Upon a Time in the West. The former is certainly the more well-known. But I will contend that most who have actually seen and digested both of those films will side with me that the later, more underrated of the two is actually superior. I invite those who may not have seen Once Upon a Time in the West to give it a chance and decide for themselves.

The Western is, in many ways, the ultimate expression of American moviemaking, and it's quite ironic that it's greatest examples have come not from America itself, but from Italy. With an objective eye that came not from within the nation itself, but rather from an entirely different milieu, Sergio Leone was able to elevate the Western into something previously unimaginable. It's very fitting that the film's title seems like something out of a fairy tale--for Once Upon a Time in the West is more than just a period film. It is quite literally history transformed into legend. It is majestic; it is archetypal; it is absolutely glorious.

NEXT UP: The Godfather (1972)

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Friday Night Films: Naked Lunch (1991)

For some reason as of yet unknown, I decided recently that it would be a good idea to read William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch. I had previously read all about Cronenberg's adaption in Cronenberg on Cronenberg and was instantly drawn to it. Clearly I was enticed by a book that could possibly feature a drug addict's stream of consciousness and giant bugs. Well let me tell you something. If anyone tells you that it's a good idea to read Naked Lunch--kick them. Naked Lunch may in fact be the craziest thing you will ever try to read. Nothing makes sense, nothing is linear, and it's barely readable. If you don't know already, this is the book William S. Burroughs wrote while he was in a state of constant high thanks to some crazy Moroccan drugs. Yeah.

After about 30 pages I gave up and moved onto Cronenberg's take on the story. Cronenberg's film is actually less of an adaption of the book and more of an interpretation. He used real incidents from Burrough's life, kept some of the same names and places and the film became the story of how Burrough's came to write Naked Lunch.

Now, I want to make it very clear that I know Cronenberg. I'm used to his style, and his constant need to include something that resembles a penis in anyway that he can.

I'm used to his themes of blending the physical with the psychological, and how he often intertwines the two as though they were one. I'm used to the overtly gooey style of blood and guts and I'm used to how amazing yet utterly mind numbing and weird his films can be. That being said, Cronenberg's Naked Lunch is the strangest movie I have ever seen.

Watching Naked Lunch is basically a film that you just have to watch. By that I mean, you really can't think too much while you're watching it or you'll get incredibly frustrated. Don't try to make sense of why typewriters are suddenly changing into giant beetles.

Don't try to come up with a sane approach as to why the type writer bugs have ginormous penis' and definitely do not try to make any big conclusions about drug use and its effects on the writer. Just relax, and take it all in on a visual level. Worry about the deep meanings later....MAYBE.

Here's the thing about Naked Lunch---I have no idea what the hell it means and I don't really plan on ever finding out. I would rather just sit and marvel at how completely outrageous the whole thing is. Naked Lunch is one of those films that oddly knocks you back into reality. It reminds you that you are NOT as smart as you think, and that no matter how hard you try--you will never be able to make a film quite like this. That's what always throws me off about Cronenberg. He isn't one of those directors that make seemingly genius films yet refuse to tell anybody what they really mean (cough David Lynch). Cronenberg however knows exactly what his films mean and he explains it and this is the best part---it makes sense!

To be honest, I'm not at all interested in what the true meaning of Naked Lunch is. I'm much more interested in seeing the way that David Cronenberg processed the book into a logical movie (well, logical as in it does have somewhat of a plot). I can't even fathom taking a book like Naked Lunch and converting it into a readable screenplay. And then to see what he did with it---how he took real elements from Burrough's life and somehow involved all these giants insects and penis' and men hiding in woman's skin--

it's kind of mind blowing. As if the very concept and idea of Naked Lunch wasn't mind blowing enough...David had to once again blow us away with his creativity and intelligence.

So what if we may never know what it means? What's so wrong about just watching a film and not trying to dissect it? If there was ever a movie that stood for "Not giving a fuck"--Naked Lunch would be it. Yes, it's probably the weirdest thing that Cronenberg has ever done and yes it's insane but good god, I think I love it--and that's all I really care about.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Radio Days (1987) The Power of Nostalgia

On the rare occasion I get back to my hometown in Cadillac, Michigan, I always stop by G & D Pizza to get what may very well be the best slices of pizza I've ever had. The taste of it takes me back to the mid-1980's when it was enjoyed as a lunch during school days or a late-night snack run during the weekends. Many memories from those days - good memories - are peppered with G & D pizza slices. If I eat them while listening to say, Dokken or KISS (which Cadillac has a connection to during the 1970's), then the nostalgia goes into overdrive.

The five senses can easily trigger nostalgia, and some more than others. The sense of hearing is one qualifies as one of the top triggers. Come on, admit it: you hear a song that played during a time in your life that was a big, red pin on your memory map and you get chills. Or you get sad. Or angry. Or you swoon. Everyone has a song - or even a whole soundtrack - that holds a place in their past.

In 1987, Woody Allen wrote and directed a fond love letter to the radio's golden age, the slice-of-life film, Radio Days. It stars a huge cast, mostly as the family which serves as the basis of all the vignettes and asides. A very young Seth Green stars as Joe, who is the narrator (Allen) as a boy. It might as well be Allen himself, but he does serve the stories up on a fictional plate. He lives in a crowded household with his parents (Michael Tucker and Julie Kavner), his aunt and uncle (Renee Lippin and Josh Mostel), their daughter (Joy Newman), his grandparents (William Magerman and Leah Carrey), and another aunt, the lovesick Bea (Dianne Wiest). The movie spans the years 1941 through New Year's Day, 1944, before television had come along and the greatest home entertainment you could get was on the radio.

There really is no plot to the movie, rather a series of short stories and vignettes. The older Joe as narrator reminisces about life as a young Jewish kid in Rockaway, New York, and how radio was central to the daily lives of different characters. He talks of how radio influenced him and led him to "collect" stories about the radio business, which results in the parallel story of naive, heavily-Brooklyn-accented, wannabe-radio star Sally White (Mia Farrow) as she struggles to achieve fame.

Sally's story takes her from being a cigarette girl in a nightclub to a witness to a mob murder, but her ditzy personality and hometown charm convinces the mobster (Danny Aiello) to help her out in a very funny scene. Just before her big break, Pearl Harbor is attacked and her fame will just have to wait. She shuttles from job to job before taking elocution lessons, which lead her to be one of the posh radio stars enjoying the very same nightclub at which she started. It's a sweet, often funny journey that makes you root for the never-say-die Sally.

Wallace Shawn voices The Masked Avenger

Much of the film is ranges from sweet to funny. Joe tells the story of how his desire for a Masked Avenger (voiced by Wallace Shawn) compartment ring leads him to a "life of crime" by keeping the proceeds his Hebrew school instructed him to collect to help support a new state in Palestine (indeed, Israel would be formed about seven years later). This gets him in huge trouble, as expected. Joe talks of his Aunt Bea and her search for love, included one hefty fellow trying to get fresh before he's scared off by radio reports of Martians landing in New Jersey. Songs remind Joe of specific memories, such as his cousin dancing to Carmen Miranda's "South American Way" or his first time kissing a girl he liked or attending a movie at Radio City Music Hall.

However, there is one very poignant scene devoid of narration and entirely chilling. When a little girl falls down a well, people from all walks of life stop what they're doing and listen. Not watch, mind you. They listen. The rich, the poor, men, women, children, everyone is glued to their radios. And when it's over, it can be summed up when the father, who had just been spanking young Joe with a belt for a chemistry set accident, holds his son close as life solemnly moves on. It's a brilliant, beautiful scene tied together only by the voice of the radio reporter on the scene.

While I tend not to gush over Woody Allen, I will not deny his place as one of the great directors. I have always believed him to be a fantastic craftsman. Radio Days is a movie I can watch anytime; it's comfortable and yes, nostalgic. I was not a kid in the 1940's, although I feel that way some mornings. But Allen paints such a gorgeous picture of New York life during the heyday of radio, that it's one of those stimuli that prompts me to wonder what it would have been like to have lived then.

When you watch the movie, it's fun to play "spot the star." William H. Macy has a wordless role as one of the performers with Sally when news arrives of Pearl Harbor. Jeff Daniels makes an appearance. Diane Keaton has a cameo as a nightclub singer. Also take a look for Mike Starr (countless films, such as Goodfellas and The Bodyguard) as a burglar in the beginning, Don Pardo as a game show host, Tito Puente as a bandleader, Larry David (Curb Your Enthusiasm) as a communist neighbor, the late Rebecca Schaeffer as the communist neighbor's daughter, and several others you'll just have to spot yourself.

It's a sweet-hearted movie, a definite love letter to 1940's radio and 1940's New York. It's funny, poignant in parts, with genuine love for the characters. It speaks not only to the power of radio and the spoken word, but to the strength of nostalgia, and how long-gone performers and certain avenues of artistic expression will live on in the memories and minds of those who promise to remember them.

Now me, I'm hankering for a slice of G & D pizza and a music block by Def Leppard...

Saturday, December 4, 2010

You’re a whore, darlin’ : Spread

That the final few minutes of director, David Mackenzie’s film Spread feature a bull frog digesting a mouse, must mean something.  I think it was the director’s way of laughing at his audience – his way of saying, “Gotcha!”  Because, as it stands, Spread serves up a plot that has been seen numerous times before, but in its last few minutes it diverts from what one expects and travels a whole other route.  

Unfortunately, that’s about the only good thing that happens in this otherwise dreadful film.

Set in sunny Los Angeles, Spread tells the tale of , Nikki (Ashton Kutcher) an empty-head Midnight Cowboy seemingly fucking his way through the women of La La Land for cash.  Through voice over, we get to hear Nikki’s philosophy of how to find, fornicate-with, and forget any girl he sets his eye on.  And that’s the first problem we have to deal with in Spread; Kutcher’s hustler roams a Hollywood party smirking and jerking his was through the crowd, and it’s just like one of his Nikon commercials.  In fact, I was waiting for him to pull out his camera and take some pictures.  

Look, there is no denying that Ashton Kutcher is a handsome, photogenic man with a great head of hair, and a nice chest…but when it comes to things like charm and sex appeal, he’s somewhat lacking.  Sadly, when you hang a movie like this on your leading man, he’s got to be a least somewhat believable, and, well, how does that song go in those commercials I referenced earlier: “Some people got, and some people don’t”… Kutcher don't.

Be that as it may, we suspend disbelief, because Spread is so much fun to watch.  The glossy look, the blinding colors, the big gorgeous houses, the seemingly endless shots of its star semi-naked.  That’s got to count for something.

Actually one of the big pluses of this movie is former Lesbian and UFO abductee, Anne Heche who plays a Beverly Hills cougar named Samantha. As soon as Nikki hones in on Samantha at a party, you know you are in for some campy fun. Whether she’s riding Nikki’s tool like a bucking bronco, or checking in to the hospital to have a vaginal plasty, Heche does not disappoint, in fact she’s the best thing about Spread.  I might have enjoyed this film a lot more, if Samantha was the focus and not Nikki.

For awhile, Nikki and Samantha are happy in their arrangement, until eventually it falls apart (as relationships of this ilk are prone to do, one imagines), because Nikki finds himself obsessing over a waitress he met in a donut shop.

Margarita Levieva plays Heather, the food serving object of desire and as expected, she initially rebukes all of Nikki’s advances until he wears her down with his charm (i.e. his smirking and jerking) and suddenly we are in rom-com land.  But then, Spread takes a turn when Nikki discovers that the woman he loves is actually a prostitute (quelle horror !).  At this point, my mind began to reel at the possibilities of what might happen – Prostitution Hers and His –in fact there is even one interesting scene when Nikki and Heather go out to a party and he gives her tips on how to pick up potential customers.  Unfortunately Spread drops this idea before too long and degenerates into a very predictable story of the gal who got away, came back, got away again, and causes the hero to take an 11th hour flight to be at her side, complete with an engagement ring.

Giving credit where credit is due, as I mentioned earlier, Spread does manage to pull the rug out from under the viewer in the last few minutes – but unfortunately it’s not enough to save this otherwise wreck of a movie that tries to be earnest, sexy, moralistic and edgy but just comes off glossy, neurotic and dull.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Friday Night Films: Singin' In The Rain (1952)

Singin' In the Rain always brings me back to the 6th grade. We were assigned to do a music project on a musician, singer or dancer and present it to the class. While most students were busy planning how best to brag about their good music taste by using Bob Marley or The Beatles--I was busy gluing pictures of Gene Kelly onto my poster board. I brought in Singin' In the Rain to show the class a clip, opting for the less well known dance number "Moses Supposes". The clip was a huge hit, and I found I won over all those "cool" kids who thought I was lame for picking a male singer and dancer. Still, it's been such a long time since I had seen Singin' In the Rain and after the film got some recent credit on an episode of Glee, I thought it the perfect opportunity to share it with my sister.

Singin' In the Rain is still as wonderful as it ever was. The bright tantalizing colors, the extravagant costumes and of course the dancing. The film is a time capsule of so many different things that it becomes hard to keep track of them all. There's the glimpse into the 20s when movies were transitioning from silent films to talkies.

A glimpse into the hey-day of musicals, when it was socially acceptable for big stars to waltz around a studio set singing and smiling.

And then there's also the ever changing glimpse into how quickly Hollywood trends can change. Here is something I had never really given thought to before, but in this most recent viewing I was floored by how poignant the idea was. With every passing decade new trends are made, new stars are born and ways of doing things become obsolete against the ever growing presence of technology. When silent films were transitioned into talkies there was an uproar, and today as people try to tell us that one day all films will be in 3-D---there is also an uproar.We find the idea of all movies switching to 3-D to be ludicrous just as folks in the 20s found the idea of talkies to be outrageous and silly. Sadly we really have no control over the ever changing trends of Hollywood. Singin' In the Rain's prevalent theme however gets even more sad and perhaps even a little bit ironic when you stop and think about how quickly Gene Kelly's career fell apart once musicals also became a declining trend.

Aside from the parallels between then and now, Singin' In the Rain continues to be a crowd pleaser because it is just too darn entertaining. It's a musical for people that hate musicals. It's a spectacle and a glimpse into a time when people could do amazing things without green screens, and wires. Gene Kelly glides effortlessly around the stage while Donald O'Connor walks up walls. Singing' In the Rain will never fail to make me smile and that's why I love it so much.

There is just so much to love. From the costumes, to the perfect comedic timing of Donald O'Connor, to the sets, to the songs, to the shrieking voice of Lina Lamont, to the behind the scenes look at Hollywood in the 1920s, to the impeccably adorable face of Debbie Reynolds,

to the dancing. Oh the dancing.

Singin' In the Rain has enough dancing to make your head seriously spin. It tricks you into thinking that you too can perform an effortless dance routine by just putting on a pair of tap shoes and a cute outfit. The dancing makes you float out of your body and puts you right smack dab in the action. For that hour and 39 minutes, we are a part of the 1920s and submersed in a land of happiness.

Of course not all is happiness in Singin' In the Rain land as the levels of irony run deep in this movie. Just as it was a movie largely about the behind the scenes area of film and about tricking the audience--Singin' In the Rain held a few secrets of its own. In what is perhaps the most disheartening, we find that ironically Debbie Reynolds did not sing her own songs in this--nor was that her voice dubbing over Lina's in the Dancing Cavalier. Additionally, Gene Kelly was what is commonly referred to today as an "asshole". He insulted Debbie Reynolds for not being able to dance, and Donald O'Connor hated working with him because he never felt like he was good enough. In fact, Fred Astaire found Debbie Reynolds crying underneath a piano on the set and then helped her improve her dancing himself.

Donald O'Connor was smoking 4 packs a day while filming this--4 packs! Debbie Reynolds feet were bleeding after the "Good Morning" scene. Gosh, it's like several bombs keep exploding in my perfect dream world of Singin' In the Rain. A word to the wise--if you find that you are in tickled pink by Gene Kelly, try to avoid reading anything about him, because it will probably cause you to cry somewhere alone and feel let down. Finding out that the real world of Singin' In the Rain isn't as happy as we thought--and further more realizing that it was just not any fun for the people doing it, is extremely upsetting.

Which is why we will not focus on that, because Singin' In the Rain teaches us to focus on the spectacle, on the finished product. We can still live in that happy rain cloud and no one has to know the truth right? What it really comes down to is that Singin' In the Rain is just one of those delightful movies that makes us smile right away and allows us to keep that smile on throughout the film's duration. It has all the necessary ingredients to do what any great film should do--entertain us. And for that, we love it.