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Wednesday, August 9, 2017

All-Time Favorite Movies: A PATCH OF BLUE (1965)

 Home is where the heart is...NOT.

In an effort to take my mind off of my current medical woes, I'm going to start posting capsule looks at my favorite movies of all time, in no particular order. Hopefully, you will find some items that interest you enough to check them out. 

Today we start with A PATCH OF BLUE (1965), a sweet but jarring and tragic tale of the friendship between Sidney Poitier, in yet another of his "perfect negro" roles, and Elizabeth Hartman as the blind, isolated, and abused daughter of aging whore Shelley Winters. (Winters won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for this performance and deserved every ounce of it.) It's Hartman's journey from an abused adolescent to blossoming womanhood as her friend (Poitier) teaches her how to be come self-sufficient in the sighted world during daily visits to the local park, a world her horrible mother has intentionally kept her unprepared for. As the pair become close, the young woman develops deep romantic feelings for her friend and intends to act on them, but he kindly keeps her at bay due to her age and innocence. 

Life lessons in the park.

But as the narrative progresses, he and the audience learn just how unspeakably horrible the young woman's life was until she met him, a tale involving her witnessing her mother's work as a low-rent whore in their apartment, her being blinded by acid thrown at her father during a vicious spat between her parents, and getting raped by one of her mother's customers while her mother had stepped out for some reason, a scene made all the more terrifying because we experience it from the girl's blind and uncomprehending point of view. Seeing her friend as a way out of her hellish life with her mother, she tries to convince him to take her in as his willing lover, which she says is alright because she's "already been done over." She relates all of this in a matter-of-fact way that communicates that she has accepted such violence as just the way life is, so her relationship with her friend/desired lover is something she never considered as possible. (The appalled look on Poitier's face after her recounting of her sexual assault is like being hit in the face with a hammer.) 

The film's sole decent man holds in his horror and disgust as our blinded and abused heroine nonchalantly recounts being sexually assaulted by one of her mother's vile clients.

And things are further complicated when the evil prostitute mother gets wind of her daughter's friendship with a black man who intends to honorably save the girl and enroll her in a school for the blind, but mom thinks his plans are more lecherous, which does not sit well with her nigger-hatin' attitudes. And worst of all, the mother plans to retire from hooking and open her own brothel, pressing her innocent blind daughter into unwilling service as her first deployed whore. It's a gripping study of world-class family dysfunction and a touching tale of a damaged young girl blossoming to womanhood under the most adverse conditions possible. A hardcore tear-jearker if ever there was one, and hands down my favorite drama from the 1960's, HIGHEST RECOMMENDATION.


 Poster from the original theatrical release.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

IN DEFENSE OF BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997)

Time to commit credibility suicide: I have recently come to the horrifying realization that I actually like Joel Schumacher's much-reviled BATMAN AND ROBIN (1997). 

Yes, BATMAN AND ROBIN is bad, even terrible, but my reason for coming to like it following the shock of seeing it in the theater during its initial release has everything to do with the film simply not giving a fuck and operating on five-year-old "kid logic." It's pretty much a Batman movie that I would have made if I were five years old, had a collection of colorful Batman toys, and a camera. The dialogue is ludicrous, the plot equally so, the visuals look like a fever dream as tempered (or not) by heavy doses of illegal Jamaican cough medicine, and the performances are like what you'd likely get if the aforementioned toys came to life and emoted. It's a child's skewed vision of adventures in Gotham city and god damn me if I don't find it as charming as a particularly dumb and lovable puppy.

Perhaps sitting through it a number of times in the hilarious version with the Rifftrax commentary broke me, but maybe not. I've seen all three of the STAR WARS prequels several times with the Rifftrax treatment and I would rather take shotgun blasts to the kneecaps than sit through any of those ever again in their straight versions, but I can sit through BATMAN AND ROBIN and enjoy it as a goofy live-action cartoon. Again, I know with absolute clarity that it's crap, but...

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

ROGUE ONE — sub-headed as "A STAR WARS Story" — is a well-made, visually spectacular, action-packed adventure set in the galaxy far, far away that we all know and love so well. So why didn't I like it? Allow me to explain. 

The first of an announced ongoing series of stand-alone STAR WARS flicks that are not part of the serialized main saga, ROGUE ONE squanders the vast galactic toybox that is the STAR WARS realm by once again relying too much on fannish nostalgia and not moving forward. The basic story has to deal with a group of Rebel heroes stealing the plans for the Death Star, the aftermath of which mission leads immediately into the original STAR WARS (1977, and fuck you if you think I'm going to call it "A New Hope"), so we already go into the film knowing that the heroes succeed in their mission, thus killing what suspense may have been generated. The Death Star is trotted out yet again, thus revealing a certain bankruptcy of ideas, and the heroes who seek to thwart it mostly fail to generate any sort of interest because we're simply thrust into the narrative while getting to know little or nothing about them. 

The protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is the daughter of the designer of the Death Star, as seen in the opening segments, and when we meet her again as an adult, she's in prison for reasons that are given only the merest scrap of explanation. She's broken out of jail by Rebel forces who want to use her to connect them with a guerrilla leader (Forest Whitaker) who may be able to help them locate her dad, who years earlier was press-ganged into helping the Empire build its "planet-killer" of a battle station. Other than Jyn's longing to be reunited with her father, we know absolutely nothing about who she is as a person or what motivates her actions, so her coming to care about the Rebel cause comes from out of nowhere and carries zero weight toward the growth of her character.

The rest of the Rebels that we meet are basically ciphers about whom we are told nothing, and they are so unmemorable that their individual names are almost instantly forgotten by the audience. Other than a few familiar faces from the original STAR WARS trilogy that were shoehorned in here to little or no narrative effect, Jyn Erso, Imperial weapons developer Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) and reprogrammed Imperial enforcer droid K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) are the only characters whose names stuck with me once they were verbally identified. And the only standout among the Rebels that I cared about was the blind warrior Chirutt Imwe, played by my man Donnie Yen, whose character believes strongly in the Force but is notably not a Jedi, despite wielding a stick with speed and skill that makes Stormtroopers his bitches.

 My man Donnie Yen, whom the whole movie should have been about.

Cool though he undeniably was, Yen's character is given very little by way of backstory to explain why some random blind dude who is, again, not a Jedi whips ass with his walking stick like a deep-space Zatoichi. That's a damned shame, because he totally ruled during the moments when he's given something to do, including being given the film's funniest line — in a film sorely in need of some levity — but the real point of his inclusion was so that the film would have a star whose drawing power will put asses in seats in the Chinese market.

With no developed characters for us to be invested in, the story trusts in the audience's nostalgia and love for previous STAR WARS movies to do all of the narrative heavy-lifting, which just struck me as lazy. For a film about which much was made of its intent to break new ground and bring audiences a "different" kind of STAR WARS movie, it's basically just more of the same, a soulless piece of corporate product of the type that less-demanding moviegoers will eat up and thus pour billions into the coffers of Das Uber-Disney. I won't presume to speak for most of the audience out there, but I was bored during most of ROGUE ONE and had to resist the urge to check my phone's clock multiple times. It's two hours and fifteen minutes of pretty much watching a filmed version of some kid making up a STAR WARS adventure in his backyard with some action figures and vehicle accessories, and I found its dour, "more realistic" war movie tone to be as dull as dirt. Sure, it looked amazing — the special effects are nothing less than stunning — but where were the characters to engage me? Where was the movie magic that transports the viewer? And, most importantly, where was the fun in all of this? I wish I could tell you, but I got nothin'.

As I left the theater, a family followed close behind me, discussing the movie amongst themselves. The mother was clearly not impressed but tried to put a positive spin on things, while her three kids — apparently ranging in age from seven to twelve — all expressed how boring they found it to be. The one enthusiastic voice was dad, who countered their arguments of being bored with "Well, I wasn't bored, because I recognized a lot of stuff from the other movies!" Like I said previously, the filmmakers relied on the audience's nostalgia to do all the work, and more's the pity. And while a similar argument could be made for last year's THE FORCE AWAKENS, I found that film to be far more engaging, complete with characters I gave a damn about, both old and new, and a sense of plain and simple fun entertainment that I felt ROGUE ONE was largely bereft of. Your mileage may vary, probably depending on just how much of  STAR WARS zombie you are, but ROGUE ONE just didn't do it for me. Sitting through it once was enough for me, and I earnestly pray that the subsequent stand-alone films in the series provide us with something a lot more worthy of our time and money. It was a noble experiment but I call it a dud.

Oh, and while Darth Vader does indeed appear during two sequences — one of which is really cool — his inclusion is both short and virtually meaningless to the film's overall plot. He could have been left out entirely and it would have made not a lick of difference to the story. If you're planning on seeing it in hope of a serious Vader fix, forget it.

Poster from the theatrical release.

Monday, October 31, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016-Day 31: MAD MONSTER PARTY? (1967)

The Monster enjoys an electrical pick-me-up.

When Dr. Frankenstein (Boris Karloff) decides to retire and name a successor to his position of the world's monster elite, he announces a gala event on his remote island/laboratory and invites an all-star who's-who of baleful creatures of the night. Along with his infamous Monster and its mate (Phyllis Diller), the Invisible Man, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Hunchback, the Mummy, the Werewolf, and of course Count Dracula all show up, some with their eyes greedily fixed upon the successorship. But Frankenstein throws an unintentional curveball by inviting his nebbishy pharmacist nephew, Felix Flanken, to the proceedings, with the lad firmly in mind as his replacement.

Felix Flanken and his uncle, Dr. Frankenstein (Boris Karloff).

That does not sit well with the glitterati of monsterdom, especially not with Dracula and the Monster's mate, plus to say nothing of Dr. Frankenstein's impossibly gorgeous redheaded assistant, Francesca. The hapless Felix swiftly and utterly unknowingly finds himself the target of multiple half-assed assassination attempts, but an even greater threat looms in the form of a titanic uninvited guest who seeks to wreak vengeful havoc...

A grand monster rally.

Finding appropriate fare for the wee ones around Halloween can be a bitch, since much of the scary movie material about there would be considered wholly inappropriate by most parents. (But not by uncles of my stripe, let me tell you!) That's where the magic world of Rankin/Bass Productions comes to the rescue. Renowned and beloved for their now-classic annual holiday television specials, such as RUDOLPH THE RED-NOSED REINDEER (1964), SANTA CLAUS IS COMIN' TO TOWN (1970), THE YEAR WITHOUT A SANTA CLAUS (1974, which features the fan-favorite "Heat Miser/Snow Miser" numbers), and the excellent L. Frank Baum adaptation, THE LIFE AND ADVENTURES OF SANTA CLAUS (1985), the company crafted charming and fun stop-motion animated specials and features brought to life by skilled animators in Japan, and this theatrical feature film was always a favorite and must-watch offering whenever it aired on television during the youth of those of us who are now of a certain age. 

The narrative is basically a case of "What if Mad Magazine made HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN?"— an aspect driven home by character designs courtesy of Mad stalwart Jack Davis — with no classic monster trope left untouched and lampooned, with Dracula pretty much stealing film with his snobbish, assholish treachery. He's a riot whenever he's onscreen, and his questionable alliances come back to bite him on his pallid ass.

Dracula and Francesca: Strange bedfellows?

It should also be noted that MAD MONSTER PARTY? features Francesca, the Doctor's buxom redheaded assistant, and if ever there were an animated puppet who gave little boys their first crush, she was it And there's more to her than there seems to be upon first glance...

Little Tibea and the Fibulas performing "It's the Mummy."

The film also features the signature musical scoring of Maury Laws, whose brass-heavy compositions are instantly recognizable to all who grew up on Rankin/Bass' output. MAD MONSTER PARTY? is replete with memorable theme tunes for its characters and a number of great songs, including the quasi-psychedelic "It's the Mummy" (to which the Mummy and the Monster's mate rock out) and the moody, evocative title song by Ethel Ennis. "The Monster Mash" is long overdue for dethroning from its lofty position as the go-to Halloween anthem, and I herewith nominate "Mad Monster Party?" to now bear the crown. Judge for yourself:

In short, the family simply cannot go wrong with MAD MONSTER PARTY? and no childhood of true "monster kids" is complete without it.

HAPPY HALLOWEEN 2016, FROM THE VAULT OF BUNCHENESS!!!

Poster from the original theatrical release. Art by the legendary Frank Frazetta.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016-Day 30: JAWS AT 40

NOTE: This piece originally ran back in June of 2015 but I felt the need to break it out for those who missed it.

There are some movies that are sheer perfection when seen properly projected, and JAWS is one of them. Arguably the first true summer blockbuster, as we have come to understand the form, the film has been re-released for limited screenings during this, its fortieth anniversary, so I hauled myself to the temple of the flickering image to take in an all-too-rare revival of a horror masterpiece.

Seeing it on the big screen (at the Union Square multiplex in Manhattan) for the first time in 40 years transported me right back to being a few days shy of turning 10 and my embracing of it as my favorite movie for a couple of years. In my early years I had my career goal set on being a marine biologist with a concentration on shark studies and I dragged my parents to every shark-related activity that I could gain access to, so seeing JAWS was an inevitability. Though rated PG, the film's poster featured the ominous tacked-on caveat, "MAY BE TOO INTENSE FOR YOUNGER CHILDREN," which only guaranteed the attendance of this budding gorehound, so considering that and the fact that it all boiled down to a story about a huge goddamned shark merrily munching its way through summer season beachgoers (and a hapless dog), you had a recipe for perfect entertainment. (And as long as we're keeping it real, whatever would transpire onscreen couldn't be any more intense or emotionally scarring than the daily witnessing of my parents' marriage rocketing down the bowl.) And when I finally did see JAWS, I fucking loved it. It was a perfect "man versus force of nature" yarn, sort of an ancient seaman's legend writ for the late-20th century, and it's that primal simplicity of the narrative, coupled with some stunning sequences of suspense and stellar characterization, that so resonates. 

It was great to see JAWS again with an audience and when the lights went down, it was like settling in as a skilled elder storyteller wove a yarn to scare and enthrall kids while also instilling in them the strong and basic lesson of taking what lurks in the depths seriously. There were some audience members who were clearly veterans from the first go-round but the majority of attendees were thirty or younger, most of whom had seen the movie numerous times on cable or DVD, and the few who who had never seen it before were easy to spot, thanks to their sudden vocalizations of shock in all the places that scared the motherfucking shit out of us back in the summer of 1975.

The horror from the deep revealed.

For the record, my favorite moment is still the part where Brody chums the water and meets the shark — sea monster, really — face-to-face, after which he backs into the Orca's interior, his face a frozen, stunned mask of horror as he matter-of-factly states, "You're going to need a bigger boat..." Also of note, you could have heard an amoeba fart during Quint's chilling recounting of his experience following the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, so all-consuming was the silence in the auditorium. The moment when Quint describes reaching over to wake up his friend, only to have the man tip over to reveal that he had been devoured from below the waist by one of perhaps a thousand tiger sharks... *SHUDDER*

Quint (Robert Shaw) makes with one of the most riveting and horrifying speeches in the annals of cinema.

Seriously, if it's playing anywhere near you, hie your ass to the theater and pay your respects as a true cinephile by seeing JAWS again as it was intended. I'll never watch it again unless it's projected and you can bet your ass I'll be there for the 50th anniversary.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016-Day 29: ARE GODZILLA MOVIES HORROR FILMS?

In 1954, a dread horror arose from the deep.

Godzilla, king of the monsters. The implacable radioactive leviathan who leaves naught but death and destruction in his wake. That's a description that runs at odds with the goofy/silly image the name conjures up for most casual observers. To most, Godzilla is the epitome of "fakey" special effects and zipper-up-the-back monster suits, and, to be fair, that assessment is not necessarily inaccurate, depending on which of the character's 29 films one sees. Series entries like GODZILLA VS THE SEA MONSTER (1966), GODZILLA'S REVENGE (1969, in which Godzilla does not even attempt revenge),  the infamous GODZILLA VS GIGAN (1972, in which Godzilla and his pal Anguirus talk), and GODZILLA VS MEGALON (1973) largely eclipse the better, more serious-minded and lavish entries in the perception of the general public. But if one goes back to the 1954 GOJIRA, which was later dubbed and released in the U.S. as GODZILLA, KING OF THE MONSTERS, one encounters a film that could not be further away from its descendants if it tried.

The 1954 GOJIRA, especially in its unaltered Japanese version, is straight-up horror of the first order, a rumination on nuclear warfare crafted by the only people in history to endure such a scorching nightmare firsthand. Shot in moody black & white, the first Godzilla film presents its titular beast as a radiation-scarred behemoth with no rhyme or reason to its attacks. Godzilla simply is, and what it is is death and destruction given flesh as a force of nature. No punches are pulled when depicting the doom and misery that it brings, as cities are leveled and burned and human life is snuffed out as easily as one would step on an ant. We see buildings collapse on innocent families, emergency wards full to capacity with broken and irradiated victims, and the whole endeavor fairly screams of utter hopelessness and despair. The filmmakers at Toho Studios very successfully communicated the terror of the atomic bomb in no uncertain terms, and anyone who comes away from experiencing the first Godzilla film as anything other than a bleak descent into a science and warfare-spawned hell was obviously not paying attention. All of the subsequent Godzilla movies, wildly varying in quality as they do, are fun matinee and weekend afternoon TV fodder, but the original is a textbook example of a horror movie directly expressing the well-founded fears of the society that created it. 

I strongly recommend GOJIRA to those who have not yet seen it, if for no reason other than to experience one of the bleakest films ever made and definitely the darkest effort in the annals of giant monster cinema. A feel-good movie it absolutely ain't.

Poster from the original Japanese theatrical release.

Friday, October 28, 2016

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2016 Day 28: DOCTOR WHO "PYRAMIDS OF MARS" (1975)

"I am Sutekh the Destroyer. Where I tread, I leave nothing but dust and darkness. I find that good."

1911: Professor Marcus Scarman (Bernard Archard) unearths the tomb of the ancient Egyptian god Sutekh the Destroyer (aka Set), which dooms him to servitude as the evil god's undead slave. Eons ago, the Egyptian gods, led by Osiris himself, waged war against Sutekh and imprisoned him on Mars, hopefully forever, in order to prevent him from wiping out all life in the universe. But now Sutekh has found a possible way out of his imprisonment and employs Scarman and a number of robot mummies to facilitate that goal, and it looks like nothing can prevent the dark deity from unleashing a swath of destruction across the whole of creation. Nothing, that is, until the Fourth Doctor (Tom Baker) and his companion, journalist Sarah Jane Smith (Elizabeth Sladen) interrupt their aimless galavanting through space and time and enter the fray. The pair of intrepid time-traveling adventurers swiftly realize that they have to intervene, lest all be lost, which they see firsthand by jumping to 1980 and finding the Earth a devastated wasteland due to their not getting involved. But how does even someone as formidable as our favorite Time Lord defeat the last of the Osirans, a being of vast cosmic power whose sole purpose is to destroy all life everywhere?

 The Doctor investigates.

PYRAMIDS OF MARS nearly always turns up on lists and polls citing the all-time classic DOCTOR WHO stories, and deservedly so. It's a triumph of solid writing and acting overcoming all-too-obvious budgetary limitations (too put it very kindly), and it evokes the best of the often mishandled Egyptian curse/mummy sub-genre of horror. In many ways, especially when remembering that classic DOCTOR WHO was a straight-up children's program, albeit one that unabashedly brought legitimate scares, this story is the perfect entry level mummy yarn for kids. So what if the mummies are actually robots? They still shamble about and murder people, so they're doing their designated genre trope job.

A horrible way to die: Having one's neck crushed between the pronounced chest ridges of powerful robot mummies.

The atmosphere of England in the early 1900's is perfectly evoked, as is the then-exotic flavor of recently rediscovered ancient Egyptian artifacts and culture. Speaking of which, Sutekh is one of the series' all-time greatest villains, if not the all-time greatest, in that he is a genuine cosmic entity of incalculable power whom it took an entire pantheon of gods to initially imprison, and his threat should he get loose again is on a downright Lovecraftian scale. In fact, Sutekh would have been right at home in one of H.P. Lovecraft's pulp tales of eldritch entities that drive mere mortals to states of gibbering insanity. Portrayed with unforgettable resonance and utter evil arrogance by Gabriel Woolf, Sutekh is hands down my favorite antagonist for the Doctor and I would love to see him brought back in the rebooted series (though considering how this story wraps up, that's pretty fucking unlikely).

Sutekh unmasked.

This story also allows the regulars to shine. Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor is in fine form, even behaving in ways that remind us that first and foremost he is an alien and a pragmatist, especially when forced to deal with something as universally horrific as Sutekh, so his lapses into seemingly cold-hearted handling of matters makes perfect sense. Sarah Jane, who was seldom a damsel in distress type, is given a lot to do here and comes through like the stalwart assistant that she is legendary for being. Once the seriousness of the situation is made apparent, she's right there at  the Doctor's side, showing a surfeit of pluck and good old British take charge no nonsense ass-kickery, especially when wielding an elephant gun.

 Sarah takes care of business.

I've been a DOCTOR WHO fan since the show first hit the States in 1978, and I tuned in every week for the serialized half-hour installments with great eagerness, thanks to stories of the level of quality displayed in PYRAMIDS OF MARS. Old school WHO always treated its audience with intelligence, an attitude that's forever commendable in children's entertainment, and if I'd seen this story when I was in the single digits, I would have felt that I'd stumbled upon something very special indeed. That said, there's one caveat about this story and old school WHO in general that I should offer for the uninitiated. Pre-reboot DOCTOR WHO was a series marked by its impoverished budget and consequent dodgy special effects and sets, much of which is laughable to modern sensibilities, but that's easily overlooked if one just lets oneself go with the stories and remember that they are a product of decades ago and told with a more decompressed style of storytelling. I much prefer DOCTOR WHO in its serialized form, which allowed more time for richer characterization and the fleshing-out of stories, as opposed to the rushed done-in-one (or two) format of the current iteration. Anyway, PYRAMIDS OF MARS is a classic for several good reasons and you owe it to yourself to check it out.