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Tuesday, December 28, 2010

BLACK SWAN (2010)

If you’re a regular reader of my ramblings on all manner of subjects, you’re aware that my interests cover a pretty wide range, but what you may never have considered is that I’m a fan of ballet.

Yes, this punk rock-listenin’, pussy-eatin’, beer-drinkin’ he-man loves himself some prissy/fruity dancers in tights flitting about the stage to the strains of music somehow not performed by The Misfits (although I would love to see a piece danced to “We Are 138”). Y’see, I greatly enjoy choreographed entertainment that displays the human body at the apex of its capabilities, so as far as I’m concerned my love of the ballet (and dance in general) jibes quite naturally with my passion for martial arts films, particularly those made by the Shaw Brothers studio (most of which feature colorful sets and costumes, seamlessly coupled with melodrama). So, with that bit of explanation out of the way, let me unequivocally state that Darren Aronofsky’s BLACK SWAN takes the prize as my favorite movie of 2010. Its tale of a deeply fucked-up professional ballerina’s descent into utter madness would have had my attention anyway, but it contains many fun and bizarro touches that its senior citizen-friendly commercials and trailers would in no way be ready for, as I discovered firsthand while seeing it at a matinee on Christmas Eve with my seventy-eight-year-old mom (I was the youngest person in the audience by a good twenty-five-year margin).

Natalie Portman as Nina. Note that her reflection has a life of its own...

BLACK SWAN tells the story of Nina Sayers (Natalie Portman), a dancer with a prestigious (unnamed) New York City ballet company, and what transpires when the company’s now over-the-hill prima ballerina (Winona Ryder) is let go and the search for her replacement begins. The control freak/womanizer director (Vincent Cassel) finds Nina to be ideal for the role of the White Swan in his radical new staging of SWAN LAKE, but he wants the lead dancer to play both the vulnerable/virginal White Swan and the more sensual/bad girl/evil sorcerer’s daughter/doppelganger Black Swan as well (NOTE: I’m assuming you probably have a working knowledge of the ballet in question, but if not, look it up).

Lily (Mila Kunis).

A new dancer, Lily (the toothsome Mila Kunis), arrives and catches the director’s eye as a possible lead, but he nonetheless awards the role to Nina, urging her to get in touch with her wild sexual side by masturbating. We also get numerous glimpses into Nina’s fucked-up home life, where she, a twenty-eight-year-old, lives in a state of strictly-enforced infantilism wrought be her twisted mother (Barbara Hershey), a former dancer herself who gave up the profession when she became pregnant with Nina.

Nina and her mom (Barbara Hershey): the most fucked-up onscreen mother/daughter relationship since that of Margaret and Carrie White.

Her mother seeks to vicariously enjoy the career that she gave up through Nina’s efforts and keeps her daughter in a dependent emotional state on the level of a semi-pubescent girl. As the story progresses, Nina comes to see Lily as a rival for the lead role and also witnesses the sad deterioration of the over-the-hill prima ballerina she replaced (Winona Ryder), and with that kind of mess fueling her already damaged psyche, Nina soon barrels headfirst down a path to outright insanity and hallucinations.

Nina walks on the wild side with a considerable amount of help from the outgoing Lily. Or does she?

Saying more would give away a number of wacko twists and turns, so I’ll stop with the synopsis at this point and simply recommend the film wholeheartedly. I will, however, state that the film’s much-mentioned girl-on-girl sequence involving Portman and Kunis is fairly tame (no trace of nudity, though nonetheless fun), but it did elicit some amusing responses from one of the ancient audience members. As previously stated, I saw BLACK SWAN at a matinee in CT with my 78-year-old mom and found it to be a film that contains a hell of a lot of stuff that most of the oldsters lured in by the film’s trailers and commercials definitely do NOT want to see. The many grannies in the audience were horrified and confused by the proceedings and my favorite audience moments were the following:

1. When a very vocal woman around my mother's age astutely and loudly noted when Mila Kunis was going down on Natalie Portman, "Oh, my GOD! She's A LESBIAN!!!" which was greeted by many of the others viewers with futile shooshing. I responded to the sight of a wild-eyed and eager Mila Kunis lapping on Natalie Portman’s oh-so-innocent pussy with an exclamation of “Thank you, Santa!” that brought appreciative laughs from the like-minded dirty old men in the audience.

2. There were many expressions of confusion from the audience when Portman began transforming into Daffy Duck in her bedroom (yes, you read that right). The previously mentioned old biddy loudly asked her equally aged hubby, "Do you understand what the hell's going on?" and her hubby responded with “She’s hallucinating, dear,” while the rest of those in attendance yelled for her to shut the fuck up.

I was very surprised to see my mom enjoyed it as much as she did because she is majorly opposed to foul language and any depiction of sexuality onscreen, especially anything having to do with homosexuality with either gender, and she nearly gagged when Mila "dined at the Y."

Anyway, BLACK SWAN is pretty over-the-top for an A-list Hollywood film and that’s the aspect that drew me to it from the get-go, although the VILLAGE VOICE’s claim that it was the most outrageous piece of camp to hit the screen since SHOWGIRLS is typical of their often-inaccurate hyperbole. Yes, it contains a ton of overblown hissy-fits, overripe dialogue, and cheesy psychological horror that brings to mind stuff like STRAIT JACKET and HOMICIDAL, but it doesn’t even begin to approach the excesses of the legendary SHOWGIRLS. But then again, honestly, what the hell could? Taken on its own unique merits, BLACK SWAN is a thoroughly entertaining fusion of the behind-the-scenes “arts” drama and old school potboiler horror of the type once common to the glory days of made-for-TV movies. It’s got a lot more genuine glitz and talent going for it than those fondly remembered chestnuts, but you get what I mean. In short, BLACK SWAN is more or less THE RED SHOES or THE TURNING POINT as filtered through an E.C. Comics sensibility, and on that basis alone it warrants your attention.

Nina dances the Black Swan and imagines herself physically transforming into the "bad girl" waterfowl.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Fifty Years of PSYCHO

WARNING: this article assumes the reader has seen PSYCHO and therefore it contains spoilers. If you have not seen PSYCHO, where the fuck have you been for the last five decades? Living under a rock in the tiny republic of Togo? See it immediately, damn you!

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of Alfred Hitchcock’s landmark film, PSYCHO, one of the all-time classics of horror and suspense, and the film that can arguably be considered the granddaddy of the “slasher” genre. Can you believe it? Fifty years! When I told my mom about that, she couldn’t believe it had been so long since she’d seen it during its original run, and she once again regaled me with the tale of how after seeing that movie, she refused to shower in the house unless another person was around.

To me, it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when PSYCHO wasn’t around. I’m forty-five years old and during my lifetime PSYCHO has gone on to become a part of world cinema’s DNA and has been a point of reference and jokes more times than I can possibly count, such was its impact. Yet somehow there are still people out there who have managed to reach adulthood without having seen it, and one of those people is my toothsome girlfriend, "She Who Cannot Be Named." Having devoted much of her growing-up years to being a diligent student (unlike me, who loathed virtually every moment of my organized schooling), She Who Cannot Be Named has missed innumerable classic (and not-so-classic) films that you or I would take it as a given that the average person would have experienced, so you can imagine how I’m champing at the bit to fill her head with a literal cornucopia of cinema from all genres and decades. With that goal in mind, when I heard that Manhattan’s Film Forum was running a screening of PSYCHO in honor of its golden anniversary, I fairly leapt at the chance to finally see it projected and haul She Who Cannot Be Named along.

Once I’d procured tickets, I made sure to advise She Who Cannot Be Named about not letting anyone spoil any of the film’s particulars for her, and things were going well in that department until one of her grad school courses ran footage from the sequence where Norman sinks Marian Crane’s car into the marsh behind the Bates Motel. When She Who Cannot Be Named told me that she’d seen that bit, I was a little annoyed but not as much as I could have been because when taken out of context that scene reveals nothing. Also, when the segment was about to be discussed in class, one of her classmates was kind enough to stand up and announce to the class that out of kindness to those who had never seen PSYCHO, they should keep mum on the details of the story. That was very gentlemanly of him, but I soon reached a state of apoplexy when She Who Cannot Be Named told me that right after that guy’s consideration of the few PSYCHO newbies in the class, some galloping asshat stated flat-out that Norman was the killer. When She Who Cannot Be Named told me that during our pre-screening dinner, I nearly hit the roof.

Undaunted, we made our way to the Film Forum and met up with my pal Suzi. As the girls hit the ladies’ room, I stood up and asked the audience if there was anyone in attendance that had not yet seen the film, and when a few hands shot ceilingward, I asked the audience not to give anything away. They all nodded in knowing agreement, and when the girls got back I settled in and absorbed PSYCHO on the (relatively) big screen for the first time. (I have seen the film many, many times since the late 1970’s and know it inside and out, but I was genuinely excited to see it projected and with an eager audience.)

If you’ve read this far despite the spoiler warning, then it’s safe to assume that you’ve already seen the movie, so I won’t bother to recount the plot. Instead, I’ll just make some observations.
  • PSYCHO hit the screen barely three years after the real-life horrors discovered at the Wisconsin home of one Ed Gein, so that brain-meltingly awful event was still fresh in the shocked and disbelieving minds of the American public, thus lending the film an extra visceral mule kick to the guts.
Ed Gein, the real-life inspiration for Norman Bates (among others), being led to the crime lab.

For those not in the know (and making a very long, complex and downright fucking horrible story short), Ed Gein was the textbook example of the town "quiet soul" that everyone knew and thought was a little odd but harmless, only to have it revealed that he was not only bullmoose crazy, but also capable of acts of such outright stomach-churning blackness that even hardened homicide detectives found his acts literally nauseating. Among other elements lifted from the Gein case for author Robert Bloch's source novel of PSYCHO can be found a grown man's very serious mother issues, questionable hobbies and handicrafts, and a marked gender-confusion, so the moviegoing audience no doubt remembered those details as they watched Hitchcock's creepy low-budget flick unspool across the nation.
  • The sheer genius of letting us get to know and care about Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) only to kill her off about a third of the way through the narrative is still staggering and must have been a real kick in the head to the 1960 audience.
And think about this: fifty years later, Marion Crane is still the most famous murder victim in screen history.
  • Though he's creepy from the moment when we meet him, Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) is so awkward and childlike, we find it easy to believe he's not the killer.
Instead, it seems like he's covering for his crazy mother, so the big reveal in the fruit cellar leaves one gobsmacked, a feeling that's compounded when Norman's pathology is outlined in detail during the epilogue.
  • My favorite scary moment in the film is when Arbogast (Martin Balsam) is murdered on the stairway while snooping at the Bates house.
The shower sequence is rightly hailed as a classic, but there's something so BANG! about when Arbogast is slashed across the face and sent tumbling off-balance, backwards, down the stairs, arms flailing, only to have "Mrs. Bates" land atop him and go to work with that chef's knife. Marion was naked and in a shower, so she had pretty much no chance to defend herself, but Arbogast might have had a chance had he not been expecting to be able to nose about in the home of a presumed invalid, so the audience really feels it when he meets his grim fate. When that moment came, I could have sworn my girlfriend jumped out of her skin.
  • The legacy of PSYCHO is vast and the funny thing is that its sequels are actually pretty good, unlike the majority of proper slasher flick sequels. Especially of interest are PSYCHO II (1983), which chronicles what happens when Norman is released after having spent twenty-two years in a mental institution, and PSYCHO IV: THE BEGINNING, in which Norman relates his disturbing origin story. Both are well worth checking out.
  • In recent years a number of classic films containing creepy and visceral material have been given ratings for their current releases on DVD, and PSYCHO has been slapped with an "R." The same rating has been applied to ROSEMARY'S BABY (1968) and considering the admittedly arbitrary criteria by which the MPAA determines what does or does not deserve a "restricted" label, I find it baffling that both films now bear that distinction. There's more "adult" material in ROSEMARY'S BABY, but nothing that would not garner a PG-13 were it to come out today, and other than the two murders, neither of which is gory, there is no content in PSYCHO that deserves any rating harder than a PG. And I'm willing to bet that the ratings on the DVDs serve no purpose anyway, because both are acknowledged classics and have both been run on non-cable television for ages in versions that were damned near uncut, so I very much doubt that any garden variety ten-year-old would be denied their purchase.
And with that I wish PSYCHO a happy 50th and urge you to watch it again, simply to be reminded of how they just don't make 'em like they used to.
Poster from the 1960 theatrical release.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

SECRETS OF THE FURIOUS FIVE (2008)

Once the excellent KUNG FU PANDA made its way to DVD, the film's creators saw fit to supplement it with an additional disc featuring the motivational origin stories of the Furious Five. Now I don't know about your own personal experience with straight-to-video sequels and add-ons to hit animated flicks, but I can tell you that the vast majority of them — mostly from the Disney greed machine — are pieces of shit designed to rip off parents who buy them at the behest of their kids, a cruelly-exploited audience whose critical capacity is satisfied by bright colors, bouncy tunes and familiar characters. These cynical "product" features are well aware of this and little if any effort is put into actually creating a story of any worth, and in my opinion it's downright criminal to give children a story that isn't worthy of their dreams and imaginations. Apparently the people behind KUNG FU PANDA feel the same way I do, because the supplementary DVD that comes with the source movie is nearly every bit as involving and magical as the original.

At some unspecified time after the events of the first film, Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) enlists "Dragon Warrior" hero Po (Jack Black) for a mission of utmost hardship: instructing a class of very young beginner kung fu students, each of whom is an adorable little bunny. Having not even the slightest clue about teaching the martial arts, Po is somewhat daunted by his task and the class' foaming-at-the-mouth desire to learn all there is to know about kicking ass, but once he's gotten the kids to settle down he appeals to their interest by detailing the hitherto unrevealed origin stories of his martial seniors, the Furious Five. Once he's got their attention, Po imparts the value of patience, confidence, courage, control and compassion to his charges, and they absolutely get what he's laying down. The back-stories of Viper, Mantis, Crane, Tigress and Monkey each have their merits — although, to be frank, Monkey's is by far the weakest — and having studied martial arts much of it really spoke to me, and in the cases of Viper and Tigress I was actually moved to tears.

SECRETS OF THE FURIOUS FIVE is simply excellent, and at a running time of around a half hour it's a model of storytelling economy that holds the viewer riveted from start to finish. But while it's short and sweet, the brevity only left me wanting more; there was so much going on here that I feel it could have gone on for another hour and still retained its high level of quality, but maybe the filmmakers knew exactly what they were doing and are stoking the fires of anticipation for the first of several big-screen sequels. If they can keep up the quality established in the first film and continued here I will be very happy indeed, so I just hope the KUNG FU PANDA franchise doesn't end up crashing and burning like the horrendous SHREK sequels. Let's keep our fingers crossed.

KUNG FU PANDA (2008)

After churning out mostly mediocre or rubbish animated films for years (SHARK TALE, the SHREK sequels, MADAGASCAR, BEE MOVIE), Dreamworks finally manages to release a piece that gets everything right from start to finish. It's apparent from the film's opening frame that a lot of care and thought went into the making of the delightful KUNG FU PANDA, and while the story is certainly nothing new — especially to those of us who live and breathe martial arts flicks — it tells a familiar tale with a great deal of heart, enthusiasm, and respect for the viewer's intelligence while completely eschewing the anachronistic and largely inappropriate pop culture jokes that worked in the first SHREK and nowhere else since.

Po (voiced by Jack Black) is the fat son of a noodle chef who, though being groomed to take over the family business, has dreams of one day becoming a great kung fu master and hero of the people, but while quite game and enthusiastic, he's lazy, clumsy, and has no martial skills whatsoever. This unlikely wannabe gets his shot at glory when the prophesied escape of the villainous and incredibly skilled Tai Lung (DEADWOOD's Ian McShane) looms imminent and a martial arts master must be named as the sacred Dragon Warrior in order to handle the threat. Po, quite by accident, finds himself awarded the vaunted title, much to the horror and dismay of the diminutive Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and his balls-out badassed students, the Furious Five, each representing an embodiment of a classical animal-based kung fu style (specifically tiger, mantis, crane, snake, and monkey). All are dumbfounded that a fat load like Po could be the Dragon Warrior and all are at first determined to make sure that he gives up and leaves the temple, but they didn't expect Po's genuine love of what they do to fuel him to give it his best shot. While he's pretty much a washout, Po's girth and enjoyment of his training work to his advantage and Master Shifu figures out just how to motivate his unwanted new student to greatness, all while his adopted daughter, Master Tigress (Angelina Jolie), seethes at the role that should have gone to her being usurped by one she feels is completely unworthy. As Tai Lung approaches and Po leaves the temple to accompany his father as the local villagers evacuate before the coming martial apocalypse, the Furious Five advance to stop him, but are unceremoniously handed their asses in a butt-kicking of painfully disheartening proportions. When Master Shifu, no slouch himself, proves unable to defeat Tai Lung — who, by the way, is also his adoptive child, one in whom he is deeply disappointed because he turned to evil — , Po returns to save the day after reaching a philosophical epiphany unwittingly provided by his noodle chef dad, providing the ages-old lesson of "believe in yourself, and you can achieve miracles" for a new generation of moviegoing little ones.

I would have had a great time with KUNG FU PANDA even had I not been a devotee to the martial arts, so I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a fun "hero's journey" or training film, as well as advising lovers of quality animation to see this on the big screen, if it pops up again, in order to get the full effect of its visual grandeur. As for the individual points of note:
  • The one element of the film that I feared would make or break the film turned out to be quite praiseworthy, namely Jack Black's voice acting. I loved Black in the excellent SCHOOL OF ROCK, but find him mostly annoying in just about everything else he's been in because his approach to comedy often strikes me like he's both trying too hard and is attempting to convince everyone watching that he's as funny as he thinks he is. This time, though, he gives a genuine performance that is full of heart and charm, and the viewer definitely comes to love and root for his character.
  • Dustin Hoffman was the last person I would have expected to be able to pull of playing that mainstay of kung fu movies, the seasoned master, but he's absolutely perfect as Shifu, a character whose triumphant martial abilities are reflected in Tai Lung's misuse of his teachings, and Master Tigress' feelings of resentment at being passed over as the Dragon Warrior. Shifu conveys a weary exasperation and sadness seldom seen in a character of this type, and I find him much more interesting than many of the master types found in the literally hundreds of martial arts films that I've seen. He's no Simon Yuen, or even Keye Luke for that matter, but he's nonetheless terrific.
  • And speaking of terrific master types, Randall Duk Kim's ancient Master Oogway is the finest of this breed since Yoda first showed up in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), before his mystery and wonder were flushed down the toilet in the cinematic Montezuma's Revenge that was STAR WARS: EPISODES I-III. This centered, contemplative figure is a tortoise whose every slow movement conveys both his advanced age and now effortless mastery of his art, as well as his wisdom and connection with the natural world around him. He's even Shifu's master, and Shifu defers to his decree when Oogway pronounces Po to be the Dragon Warrior; Shifu has his doubts about that, but in the end Oogway is proven right beyond the shadow of a doubt.
Shifu and Master Oogway.

Truly beautiful in every way, I wish Oogway had more screen time.
  • The Furious Five are a load of fun and a formidable group of warriors if ever I saw some. Viper (a perfectly cast Lucy Liu), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Crane (David Cross), Monkey (Jackie Chan), and especially Tigress (Angelina Jolie) are a joy to watch, and I demand to see more of them in the inevitable sequel. That goes most strongly for Jackie Chan's Monkey, a brilliant bit of casting that unfortunately went nowhere because the character has perhaps five lines of dialog.
  • Don't skip the end credits because they are a triumph or design and amusing character art vignettes, as well as having a sweet, silent coda at the very end.
TRUST YER BUNCHE!!!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

AACHI & SSIPAK (2006)

Crazy. Just plain balls-out crazy. That's about the only way to describe the sheer insanity and wholesale carnage on display in Jo Beom-jin's AACHI & SSIPAK, a South Korean exercise in unbridled animated mayhem and humorous bad taste. I saw a free screening of it in Tribeca last night and I'm completely blown away.

At an unspecified point in the future, the only renewable energy resource is human excrement, so the government anally implants citizens with an identity ring that takes note of when they drop a deuce, and the citizen's contribution to the fuel supply is rewarded with a narcotic Juicy Bar, an addictive taste treat that looks like a popsicle made from Windex. Unfortunately, a side-effect of Juicy Bars is that they can turn those who eat them into borderline-retarded blue mutants who can now only metabolize Juicy Bars for nourishment, and when the government cuts off distribution of the bars to the mutants, they band together under the leadership of the Diaper King and ravage armed Juicy Bar shipments as the ultra-violent Diaper Gang. In the aptly-named Shit City, Juicy Bars are abundant, so the gang has plenty to plunder.

Highway robbery: the Diaper Gang hijacks a shipment of Juicy Bars.

But the government isn't having that, so their resident very mad scientist, Dr. Strange, creates Geko, an inhumanly agile, motorbike-riding super-cyborg who's equipped with enough ordnance to overthrow a small country. Geko regularly annihilates droves of the Diapers, but their numbers seem limitless so his fight goes on and on.

Geko, the cybernetic one-man army, in action.

Into this maelstrom of violence ride the diminutive Aachi and his bald, shirtless friend, Ssipak, two biker punks who make a living by hanging around public lavatories and ripping off Juicy Bars from citizens while they're still on the bowl and selling the bars on the lucrative black market. After getting beaten up by prison-based gangsters whose territory they've horned in on, the pair find Jimmy the Freak, a flamboyant pornographer who's making an "artistic" film about a girl whose anus saves the world (don't ask), and the two get him Carlos Castaneda-level fucked-up on Juicy Bars in order to remote control his body and wreak vengeance upon the the crime boss whose boys had earlier assaulted them and made off with their ill-gotten loot. As the Diaper Gang also zeroes in on the crime boss and his Juicy Bar ring, all hell breaks loose, landing Jimmy in the clutches of the Diaper King, while the boys meet Beautiful, an avaricious porn actress who sought the lead in Jimmy's new film (and turned up her nose at his anally-oriented film concept, instead suggesting he focus on her world-saving tits).

Beautiful makes her pitch.

During the Juicy Bar-spurred madness, Jimmy explains to the Diaper King that all he needs to do to get all the Juicy Bars he and his people need is to find someone who takes exceptional dumps and implant them with several of those anal identification rings. In theory that would cause a decent dump to yield vast amounts of the bars, so Jimmy points the Diaper Gang in the direction of the perfect subject, namely Beautiful. Once kidnapped by the gang, Beautiful is unwillingly stuffed with the identity rings, only to be rescued in the nick of time by our heroes (at the insistence of the smitten Ssipak).

Beautiful, getting anally stuffed like a Thanksgiving turkey, just as our heroes arrive to literally save her ass.

With Beautiful now amounting to the goose that laid the golden eggs, the trio turn her defacatory yield into an avalanche of Juicy Bars ready for black market distribution and in no time the crew find themselves Tony Montana-level wealthy, which allows them to live out their dreams of tacky opulence.

Our newly rich heroes, stylin' and profilin'.

But such a state of affairs was not meant to last and the forces of the government, the Diaper Gang and the utterly mad Dr. Strange each converge to claim Beautiful (who has plans of her own for her cash cow ass) and shut down the crew's operation. While a cornucopia of mayhem and violence erupts from every conceivable direction, it's a race against time to save Beautiful from a horrid existence of rectal slavery as Aachi and Ssapik must simultaneously contend with the legion of Diaper Gang mutants, the guns-a-blazin' fury of Geko, evil government officials, and some special threats dreamed up by the psycho doctor.

The battle for Beautiful.

AACHI & SSIPAK is a delirious, beautifully-designed and colorful head-on collision of a NATIONAL LAMPOON sensibility, a HEAVY METAL-style anarchic and dystopian future, and the kind of wild sci-fi fun to be found in 2000 AD magazine during its classic period. It's also a real treat for film buffs because it references and pays homage to many of the films that it was influenced by, but, unlike a Quentin Tarantino crib-fest like KILL BILL VOL. 1, it never becomes a feature-length checklist of the filmmaker's sources.

Beautiful borrows a page from Uma Thurman during the film's "wealth" montage.

By far the best and most entertaining Asian animated movie I've seen in ages, I cannot recommend this highly enough for those of a mind to check it out. The only problem with doing so is that AACHI & SSIPAK is not yet legally available on DVD here in the States, obtainable only via "gray market" DVD if you know where to look, and on YouTube. At last night's screening, the show's host stated that the film is supposedly slated for legitimate release on DVD next year, so keep your eyes open. Until then, go here for the first fourteen minutes of the film. You will NOT be disappointed, so make sure to watch this as large as possible. (I would have embedded it, but embedding of this material was disabled by request.)

Aachi, shamelessly grooving on the profits garnered from Beautiful's bountiful turds.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

FRIDAY THE 13th (2009)

Here we go again...

It's funny, but just by existing this reboot of the quintessential slasher movie series is automatically far superior to its predecessors, but that's not really saying much.

The never-ending FRIDAY THE 13TH series had its occasional moments, but overall the lot of them were amateurishly made, substituted mostly-tepid gore for actual scares, starred no one of note — unless you count Corey Feldman, so that alone speaks for itself — and repeated almost the exact same "story" in each of its installments, so there was no reason to expect a series relaunch to vary the tried-and-true formula in any significant way. Not surprisingly, the filmmakers did not alter the template that much, but the film does offer a greater degree of cinematic competence than any previous FRIDAY THE 13TH flick, so at least that's a start. But even with that in mind, a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie is more or less review-proof since those who dig them will see them anyway, no matter how much the critics may warn them off, but any film reviewer (or fan, for that matter) who goes to one of these expecting Kurosawa is a fucking idiot.

Since its inception in the summer of 1980, the FRIDAY THE 13TH template has gone a little something like this: a pack of horny/drunk teenagers go to the secluded woodland site of Camp Crystal Lake for a number of perfunctory reasons, always resulting in their gory deaths at the hands of unkillable, silent and murderous juggernaut in a hockey mask Jason Voorhees (or in the case of the first movie, his insane mother). Other than the possible involvement of local yokels, hick cops, cheesy 3-D effects, an outer space setting or Freddy Kreuger, that's all you need to know. It's the classic campfire story about a mad slasher and his escalating body count brought to the screen ad infinitum, so here are the pertinent facts about the new version:
  • If you've seen even one FRIDAY THE 13TH movie, you've pretty much seen 'em all, and that goes for the new one too.
  • Shockingly, filmmakers who are capable of more than merely aiming the lens at some actors are behind the camera, so this counts as the best-made and best-looking FRIDAY entry by a landslide.
  • The cast of unknowns acquit themselves quite well for this kind of thing, especially Travis Van Winkle as Trent, a rich-kid asshole of incredible magnitude. It's not a hard role to pull off, but Van Winkle renders Trent an asshole's asshole and I salute him for it.
Travis Van Winkle, delivering a tour de assholism performance as the loathsome Trent.
  • A couple of the obligatory topless girls in the film sport what are among the most incredibly fake tits I've ever seen, but luckily there's the stunning Julianna Guill as Bree on hand, who rocks a set of the most mouth-watering all-natural dairies it has ever been my considerable pleasure to behold. Needless to say, she gets horribly murdered.
Julinna Guill loses that annoying top. I know her jubblies might look slightly too gravity-defying here, but when she leans over there is no doubt in my mind as to their all-natural status.
  • The screenwriters took the disparate elements of the first three FRIDAY THE 13TH films and fused the aspects of the Jason legend found in those into a coherent whole, the first time that's been done in the whole run of the series. The shit ain't James Joyce or anything, but it's nice to see Jason's origin solidly codified.
  • In the film's opening flashback that kinda/sorta re-stages the ending of the 1980 original film, Jason's mother is firmly convinced that Jason had drowned thanks to counselor negligence, hence her murderous rampage in his name. That's all well and good, but once she's decapitated by the sole surviving camp counselor, we see a young and clearly living Jason living feral on the campgrounds. Whaaa???
  • When we see Jason again as an adult, he's a hulking and silent grownup who resides on the long-abandoned Crystal Lake campgrounds, living off the land and wearing a bag over his head (a la FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2). The locals all know to leave well enough alone when it comes to Jason's territory, but for some reason there's a hick who lives right next door to Jason and operates some kind of wood-chipping barn where he sells and smokes weed while reading issues of HUSTLER. The weed this guy sells is apparently growing wild in great and potent abundance and not, as some earlier reviewers have noted, because Jason is now a pot-farmer.
  • Legends of that fabulous pot windfall attract five horny teens during the film's first twenty-four minutes, thus providing an excuse for what would have been the events of an entire old school Jason movie to happen before even a half-hour in, so if you choose to give up on it after that you miss nothing (other than Julianna Guill's truly spectacular breasts).
  • The main plot — Ha! — kicks in six months after the massacre of the aforementioned teens and finds the brother of one of them looking for his missing sister. The paths of that guy and another batch of horny teens intersect first at a local general store and later at the rich asshole kid's folks' luxury cabin near Camp Crystal Lake. You do the math.
  • Jason himself remains the implacable killing-machine he always was, but now his abilities as a hunter make sense (there's an impressive kill made in broad daylight involving Jason's apparently Olympic-level archery skills), although he still comes off as rather superhuman at times. After being quite decisively killed, he of course returns at the end to wreak havoc on the story's survivors (like you didn't know that was coming), so I guess he's still some sort of monster. Who knows?
  • The gore is occasionally creative, but sometimes shot in such a way as to render the action visually confusing. And when compared to the film that started it all twenty-nine years ago, the bloodletting in this one is quite tame. Fuck those pussies at the MPAA!!!
  • There is not one single actual scare or an iota of suspense to be found in the entire film, and since this is supposedly a horror film that's a big problem. While a great deal of attention was paid to actually making a well-crafted and briskly-paced FRIDAY THE 13TH MOVIE, they somehow forgot to bring the fright, and no amount of shameless cribbing from THE TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE can make one overlook that alarming aspect.
  • The version of the film that I saw was the extended "killer cut" on DVD and it's nine minutes longer than its theatrical incarnation, so at a running time of 106 minutes it's almost twenty minutes over-long by my estimation. It's paced well, but there's just not enough going on here to warrant nearly two hours of any viewer's time, not even that of a die-hard Jason groupie.
The DVD's extras are nothing to write home about but the "making of" documentary proves the entire cast and crew were game and totally aware of exactly what movie they were making, treating it as a lark and not taking themselves too seriously. The deleted scenes are best given a miss since they were deleted for a reason, and as a whole I'd say the DVD was merely passable if not for the novelty of actually seeing one of these movies made by people who genuinely set out to make something good and not just another cash-in/"re-imagining." Not that it turned out all that much different from what came before and "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" and all that, but they certainly get points for not turning out a piece of outright shit.

The last point I'd like to make about this and damned near every other FRIDAY THE 13TH flick is that they are best enjoyed with an audience. Even if the film itself is kinda lame, it can still be enjoyed when seen with people who are easily scared or with moviegoers who are into "audience participation" (aka most inner-city audiences), so in the case of this particular entry I suggest watching it with a roomful of friends and a handy abundance of liquor or illegal pharmaceuticals.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

CALIGULA (1979)

Here's where this site finally does the world a public service. Despite all you may have heard about the infamous CALIGULA, I'm here to tell you that's it's an overblown testament to across-the-board excess, turgidly dull, and certainly not worth the waste of two-and-a-half hours of your life. It even stars my favorite actor, Malcolm (A CLOCKWORK ORANGE) McDowell, and I still can't stand it! I mean, how do you make a movie so absolutely loaded to the gills with extremely graphic gore and hardcore sex — two elements I adore — and still have it turn out so fucking boring?

The film has no real story — no surprise since the script was penned by that pretentious and overrated A-hole Gore (MYRA BRECKENRIDGE) Vidal — and is just an escalating parade of explicit images that seek to titillate the viewer, and as such it could be considered a success, provided you're just looking for entrails and pussy, but the whole in-your-face experience is simply numbing after its all-too-generous running time. The film also famously roped a slew of A-list thesps to appear in what was originally to be an R-rated look at the mad emperor's rule and eventual assassination, but then money man Bob "Penthouse" Guccione, aided by his pal Giancarlo Lui, shot and inserted majorly-explicit sex stuff while the film was in post-production that pissed off many of the cast and alienated many critics, to say nothing of presumably annoying the piss out of the porno audience who wanted to see just the wet shots with no attempt at anything else. I've seen porn audiences who don't care if a given skin flick is shot in a moldy basement while the talent fuck on a stained mattress just as long as there's action, which CALIGULA certainly has, but it's trying to be way too highbrow while also striving to appeal to the trenchcoat brigade, and that's a recipe that just doesn't work.

The only positive things I have to say about the film are few, but they are strong draws to the curious, so let me break it down for you:
  • The sets, costumes, and other related stuff are just as opulent as anything found in the historical epics of decades past, so even if the movie itself is largely boring, you can at least enjoy the pretty images.
  • The film barely goes for two or three minutes without something pornographic or violent happening, and the nudity/sex ranges from simple nekkid chicks to full-blown orgies of flesh featuring scores of humpers, complete with the camera practically shoved up every nearby orifice.
  • One of my favorite actors, Helen (PRIME SUSPECT) Mirren, is in CALIGULA, and she does get nekkid.
Not that she's ever been shy, but I'm just saying. She even has a three-way with Caligula and his sister (that's Helen with the long-assed wig.)

However, I'm only noting that scene because it exists, not because it's all that hot.
  • My man Malcolm McDowell gives perhaps his most over-the-top performance here, and that's really saying something. I love the guy and it's a joy to see him chew the scenery with that patented loony smirk upon his face while wearing an assortment of staggeringly flamboyant togas.
But the one thing, — THE ONE THING!!! — that keeps CALIGULA in my DVD collection is the contribution of Lori Wagner and Anneka di Lorenzo, two lovelies who are featured as regulars in Cal's live-in entourage. These benevolent goddesses make the entire film worth sitting through thanks to what is, in my humble opinion, the greatest hardcore lesbian scene ever committed to celluloid.

Lori and Anneka, sittin' in a tree...

Their scene is interspersed as counterpoint with the aforementioned three-way and in every way their bedroom arabesque blows the competition out of the water. Incredibly sensual, tender, and downright steamy, the sequence is commanded by Anneka di Lorenzo, who claims in the unimaginably boring making-of documentary to have never previously had sex with another woman... Well, all I have to say to that claim is, "Yeah, RIGHT!" The girl eats clam like a goddamned sea otter and it's truly a joy to behold. I usually find lesbian scenes, even the hardcore ones, boring as shit, but this sequence is an exception of unparalleled magnitude.

The greatest scene in motion picture history.

The only thing that stops it from being absolutely perfect is the cutting back and forth to Cal's listless threesome, and its relative brevity. Any fool could have seen that the Wagner-di Lorenzo segment was a winner, so why did Guccione fuck it up with intercut hetero stuff? Surely the man was mad.

So now you know all you need to know about CALIGULA, and you can proceed at your own risk. But I'm tellin' ya, that lesbian scene...WOOF!!!

Yes, this is real.

Monday, October 25, 2010

ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS (1969)

Though I've been a diehard giant monster fan my whole life I can't really say I was a Gamera booster during the formative years of my addiction, despite repeated doses of the character's films on the Tri-State Area's venerable 4:30 MOVIE during the 1970's and early 1980's. Many of my fellow daikaiju addicts absolutely loved the Gamera series at the time, but before moving to Connecticut I had lived in San Francisco and so had been exposed to the charms of ULTRAMAN before seeing Gamera, and while the ULTRAMAN television series was certainly made as a low-budget kid's show, it had a charm and imagination sorely lacking in the Gamera movies. The Gamera films to me seemed like nothing more than cynically-churned-out product to cash in on the success of the contemporary Toho Godzilla films, plus their aggressively kiddie-oriented tone (after the first two films) drove me fucking crazy as a child, especially once the protagonists became precocious kids in those disturbing short pants common to the genre. And as if that weren't bad enough, Gamera itself, once a feared (though rather tatty) city-destroyer, was re-tooled into the ultimate in kid-friendly nausea, namely "Gamera, the Friend of the Children," complete with a jaunty and utterly sickening signature tune sung by a chorus of untranslated Japanese rugrats. Pee-yuke.

The one thing the Gamera series did have going for it was a stable of opposing monsters that gave those found on ULTRAMAN a run for their money when it came to being both laughable and ludicrous. But the thing that distinguished one batch of those monsters from the other was that you laughed with the monsters on ULTRAMAN, while you invariably laughed at those who fought Gamera (then again Gamera itself was a giant, flying, saber-toothed turtle, so I guess I shouldn't have expected anything different). Gamera took on such beasts as Barugon (not to be confused with Toho's Baragon), which was basically a humongous iguana that could emit a death-ray rainbow from its back (???) and wielded a tongue that shot a freeze-ray; the evil space-squid Viras that looked like Gumby on LSD, the super-sonic, death-ray-emitting and vampiric Gyaos, and a couple of others of considerably lesser note, but none of Gamera's opponents was anywhere near as endearingly idiotic as Guiron from ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS. Amazingly silly in concept, Guiron is the one Gamera baddie that absolutely everyone remembers, and its memorable status is helped immeasurably by the film being perhaps the best of the original Gamera series. (NOTE: the Gamera series was given a much needed and completely kickass reboot in the mid-1990's, but that's fodder for a whole post on its own.)

ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS is a study in simplicity. The story involves three kids, Akio (Nobuhiro Kajima), his apparently American friend, Tom (Christopher Murphy), and Akio's younger sister, Tomoko (Miyuki Akiyama), and their adventure when they witness a flying saucer landing nearby. The kids investigate the saucer and the boys enter it, unwittingly finding themselves trapped when the ship takes off, guided by remote control. Poor Tomoko is left behind and tries to tell her assholishly dismissive mother what happened, but she's continually brushed off as having too much imagination and believing in foolishness (this subplot will piss off every right-thinking person on the planet). The only grownup who believes her is local comic relief cop Officer Kondo (Kon Omura), but his belief in her word is little consolation as she worries for her brother and their friend.

The brain-hungry space-chicks get down to business.

The boys' flight beyond the sun is tailed by Gamera but the saucer's propulsion system kicks into overdrive, leaving Gamera sucking fumes, and in no time the boys have crash-landed on a barren alien world (a crash that happens offscreen, presumably to conserve the obviously limited budget). While checking out the abandoned city they landed in, the kids encounter Flobella and Barbella, two space-cuties who seem friendly at first but are soon revealed to be brain-eating cannibals whose people fled their planet when they lost control over the monsters they had created. One such monster, an outer space analog to the Earth's own killed-by-Gamera Gyaos (you can tell it's a "space" version because they spray-painted the leftover Gyaos suit silver), flies aimlessly around the place, blowing shit up with its orally-emitted beams, so since they have nothing better to do, the space-chicks send the remaining monster under their control, Guiron, to kill the Space-Gyaos.

The unforgettable visage of Guiron (or "Knife-Head," as the kids who weren't paying attention liked to call it during my youth).

Guiron's a squat-bodied, dog-like living knife that uses its face as a brutally effective cutting edge, and when that isn't enough it can also launch shuriken (that's "ninja throwing stars" to us gaijin) from sockets located above its eyes. Guiron kicks Space-Gyaos' bargain basement ass in no uncertain terms and, demonstrating an aspect that distinguished Daiei Studios' Gamera flicks from the more upscale Toho efforts featuring Godzilla and pals, uses its blade-face to semi-gorily chop the fallen enemy into several pieces. Beginning with the second Gamera movie, WAR OF THE MONSTERS (1966), Gamera engaged in cartoonishly bloody combat with its foes, even spewing blue/gray monster blood from its own wounds, so this came as no shock to Japanese audiences, but it was quite a surprise to see on American TV in a slot reserved for heavily-sanitized children's programming. Anyway, there's a bunch of mishegoss where the boys try to run away from the cannibalistic aliens, but then Gamera shows up and engages Guiron in some spirited and ridiculous combat before the evil aliens are killed and the boys get to go home (much to the relief of Tomoko, whose tales of a close encounter are satisfyingly vindicated at last). And upon going home, Akio relates that what he's learned from the adventure to another "star" (apparently the screenwriter didn't know or care about the difference between a star and a planetary body), namely that mankind must strive to do better and work to no longer have wars or traffic accidents (the kid is apparently obsessed with traffic accidents since he mentions them at least three times during the film's running time; since his dad is never seen or mentioned, was his father the victim of one such accident?).

The battle between Gamera and Guiron has justly gone down in giant monster history as one that is spectacular and crowd-pleasing in its silliness, and it even includes Gamera executing moves straight out of an Olympic gymnastics routine involving swinging around bodily on the uneven parallel bars (although Gamera uses a singular bar).

No, you are not hallucinating.

It's simply something you have to see to believe, and I defy you to keep a straight face or not exclaim "You've gotta be fucking kidding me!" when you see it for the first time. But while that bit may stop audiences dead in their tracks, the scene that made me scream "No way!!!" at age eight was when Gamera picks up the flying saucer after it had been sliced in twain by Guiron and spot-welds it with his flame-breath into good enough shape to comfortably support the boys as he carries the saucer back to the earth.

Apparently Gamera is expert at impromptu body work.

So when all is said and done, ATTACK OF THE MONSTERS is a fun way to spend roughly eighty minutes, and even the kid characters in it are tolerable (for once). And long after the days when it ran in after-school time slots, the film resurfaced in a pointlessly and terribly re-dubbed version when it (and apparently the rest of the original series Gamera films) fell into the hands of TV producer and film distributor Sandy Frank and was re-titled GAMERA VS GUIRON for VHS release. The movie would probably have gathered moss on the nation's home video retailer's shelves had it not been scooped up for an epic session of verbal abuse in a 1991 installment of the frequently hilarious cult TV showcase for truly awful movies, MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.

As seen on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000.

If you ask me, the other Gamera films were the ones that really needed the MST3K treatment to make them bearable, especially the turgid GAMERA VS BARUGON, but the MST3K handling of GAMERA VS GUIRON makes the most of a film that is both silly as hell and entertaining, so it was a win/win. But it was good to see the film in its initial American version again and it was well worth the five bucks it cost to add it to my library of giant monster movies.

And I have to ask: why the fuck did Sandy Frank feel the need to re-dub all the Gamera movies that fell under his company's banner? The new dubbing is truly appalling, far worse than even some of the most poorly-dubbed kung fu films I've seen (it's worse than the dubbing found in SHAOLIN KUNG FU MYSTAGOGUE, and that's really saying something), so does anyone out there have an answer s to why it was done? Please write in and let me know!

DESTROY ALL PLANETS (1968)

For the first time in about thirty years I once again saw former 4:30 MOVIE "Monster Week" mainstay DESTROY ALL PLANETS, and again I was reminded of exactly why I hated Daei's Gamera series, even when I was of the age the films were targeted to, yet at the same time also appreciated them for some occasionally very inspired ideas for monsters.

As we all know — or at least as we who are giant monster movie-junkies know — , gigantic flying (?) turtle Gamera is the "friend of all children" and protector of Japan (and by association the entire Earth), and woe to any tatty rubber-suited foe who offered threat to either. That was the formula for the majority of the films in the series — the lone exception being the initial installment, in which Gamera was itself a destructive threat — and in some cases Gamera's monster adversaries were more fun and interesting than our ostensible hero. A perfect case in point is DESTROY ALL PLANETS' bizarro antagonist, Viras, a technologically advanced kinda/sorta space-squid with designs on conquering the Earth with the aid of some henchmen who look like beret-wearing, besmocked elementary school art teachers.

Evil space-squid Viras: Cthulhu by way of Sid & Marty Kroft.

Viras is cooler than penguin shit, but rather than fully concentrate the narrative on him and his inter-galactic evil, the filmmakers once again give us annoying kid protagonists, this time a pair of boy scouts, one a precocious Japanese genius and the other apparently an American (making the film potentially more lucrative in the non-domestic market). The boys steal an experimental mini-submarine and require rescuing by Gamera and once the rescue is accomplished, Viras' spaceship scans Gamera's mind to learn exactly what kind of creature offers such fierce opposition to its tentacled world-conquering.

Viras' beach ball-like spcecraft.

That mind-scan leads to the most egregious example of one of the flaws that the Gamera series is justly infamous for, namely padding out the running time (and saving on budgetary expenditures) with stock footage from previous films. DESTROY ALL PLANETS was the fourth Gamera flick, so the filmmakers had three previous movies to cherry-pick from, culling twenty solid minutes (!!!) of monster fight footage that brings the film to a complete halt as the audience is forced to sit through tons of low-budget stuff they'd most likely seen in the theater during the earlier films' original releases. There's no attempt at editing the stock footage in such a way as to make it exciting or even interesting, to say nothing of trying to hide the fact that the first film was in black & white, and when the stock footage parade finally ends, Viras puts Gamera under mind-control, which leads to...more stock footage from the first two films, again not giving a fuck about some of it being in black & white. (At least no one can complain about the film lacking in tons of monsters and scenes of destruction, whether or not it's stock footage.) Anyway, Gamera is eventually freed from Viras's thrall and sets about kicking ass in earnest. To counter this, Viras surrealistically beheads its followers and absorbs their bodies into its own, causing it to grow to a size comparable to Gamera's.

Viras emibiggens itself.

The rest of the movie thankfully more or less forgets about those irritating kids and lets fly with some impressive and fun giant monster ass-whuppery, merrily displaying the one thing Daei's flicks had over Toho's Godzilla series: mildly graphic gore! In Gamera's battles, serious injuries were commonplace, both for the hero and the villain, replete with spewing (blue) blood and the occasional maiming or dismemberment. This time around, it's Gamera who gets the worst of it, especially once Viras folds its head up into what amounts to a spear and damned near succeeds in putting it all the way through the heroic turtle's chest. And it looks like it really hurts!

"In the midst of world-conquering, romance steals a tender moment": is it just me, or do monster fights sometimes look like the creatures involved are having passionate sex?

Eventually Gamera wins and the Earth is saved. THE END.

DESTROY ALL PLANETS is flawed, to say the very least, but it's a time-waster of a kiddie movie and works well enough as such. But the one thing that sets it apart from the legion of rubber-suited monster opuses unleashed in the 1960's is Viras, a goofy-looking and truly inspired creation that's the first creature fought by Gamera possessing an intelligence above that of an animal (the later Zigra being another). Viras's features bring to mind an unholy fusion of a character from an old Sid & Marty Kroft show, H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu, and a pissed-off Cockatiel, so with those elements factored in and a bunch of flailing rubbery tentacles for accent, what's not to love? Not only is Viras my favorite monster in the original Gamera series, he's also one of my favorite Japanese monsters, period. If you see this film for no other reason, check it out for Viras.

Poster from the original Japanese release. Note how Viras' head is shoved through a crumbling skyscraper. Now that's how you do a movie poster!

IT'S FINALLY OFFICIAL: I'M DONE WITH STAR WARS

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980): the only STAR WARS movie I will ever willingly sit through again.

I don't recall the exact moment when it happened and I guess that isn't really relevant, but at the age of forty-four I have finally had enough of nearly everything that even remotely has to do with STAR WARS, its sequels, its crazy galaxy, its everything. To many people of my age such a statement is nothing short of blasphemy, but it's recently dawned on me that I just don't give a fuck anymore.

The original STAR WARS came out a month before my twelfth birthday and was the best kind of entertainment for a lad like me at that age. This was before the light switch about girls was permanently clicked to the "ON" position in my brain, and the film's dazzling special effects and far-flung alien vistas blew my mind and the minds of damned near every kid of my generation, be they male or female. Fuck the fact that the so-called science fiction film had no relation whatsoever to actual science, physics or logic; the shit was fun and that's all there was to it. It opened imaginations up to all manner of visual and conceptual possibilities, even inspiring one of my classmates to borrow his dad's drafting table and architect's implements so he could create an impressive series of blueprints of the Millennium Falcon, working from no reference other than what he called up from memory after seeing the movie at least twenty times. STAR WARS was a full-blown worldwide phenomenon, missed only perhaps by cannibalistic hunter/gatherers deep within the rain forests of South America, and for better or worse it changed the way we looked at films and turned Hollywood into a factory that seemed to exist for no purpose other than to churn out the next money-raking blockbuster. (Some say that state of affairs began with JAWS in 1975, but it really kicked into high gear with the release and success of STAR WARS.)

THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980) was the first of the newly-minted franchise's sequels and it did everything in its power to equal and surpass what the fans got from the original. I truly enjoyed THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK for many reasons, but while it remains the only STAR WARS film I'll willingly sit through again I have to admit that the film loses it for me right about when the gang in the Millennium Falcon hit Bespin and get betrayed by Lando Calrissian, a boring non-character thrown in solely to answer complaints about there being no black people in the STAR WARS galaxy. Yeah, I know the reveal about Luke's parentage happens after that but what was somewhat shocking twenty-nine years ago has since become so much a part of the culture that it's frequently been used as a punchline in things that have no relation to STAR WARS, so I don't need to see it again.

Then came 1983's RETURN OF THE JEDI, where George Lucas was now fully in power and all the film had was, as Dante so precisely observed in Kevin Smith's CLERKS (1994), "a bunch of Muppets," and not very good ones at that (Sy Snootles, anyone?). Just about everything in the film ate it bigtime, plus they couldn't even be bothered to give the audience anything new in terms of a "Big Bad" and instead gave us the Death Star again. And do not get me started on those fucking Ewoks; a bunch of low-rent ripoffs of H. Beam Piper's charming Fuzzies, they may be the ultimate example of Lucasfilm's marketing power in that we know the fucking things are called Ewoks but are at no point in the film referred to as such. Seriously, go back and watch it again. They are never once referred to by either individual names or a blanket term for their species, and yet we all know what they are.

Next followed an almost two decade gap between the original trilogy and the prequel trilogy, and during that time STAR WARS fandom and merchandising exploded like a pandemic of geekishness, burying us beneath an avalanche of products whose sole saving grace was finally giving us decent commercially-available lightsaber toys. There are those who make a strong case for the "Slave Leia" image becoming part of the pantheon of hot sci-fi chicks, but I beg to differ. No offense meant to Carrie Fisher, whose work in the first STAR WARS I liked a lot, but the Princess lost all trace of personality after her first go-round and if I wanted to see a scantily-clad woman in fantasy gear I could simply pick up any art book of paintings by Frank Frazetta. Also the fact of the matter is that Carrie Fisher may be appealing in some respects but is not what I'd call "hot" by any stretch of the imagination, and did not successfully pull off the look as intended (at least not in my opinion). She was no Nancy Culp in a bikini, but you know what I mean.

When the prequel trilogy finally came about it proved to be a creative cul de sac, offering nothing more than awful self-revisionism (Midi-Chlorians being the chief bone of contention), Jar-Jar Binks, the wretched Annikin Skywalker (both child and young adult), and an endless parade of soulless and uninvolving CGI. Kevin Murphy, the voice of Tom Servo of MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 fame, described STAR WARS EPISODE ONE: THE PHANTOM MENACE as "the moment when George Lucas went pants-crapping insane" during his commentary on the film for the RiffTrax version, and I'm inclined to agree with him. The prequel trilogy reveals a filmmaker who has total creative freedom and has no real interest in giving his characters any kind of personality, instead turning his attentions to the films' lavish budgets and the incredible images the techno-wizards at Industrial Light and Magic can generate. They're pretty to look at but totally unsatisfying as entertainment, and I think it says volumes that the only way to enjoy them is by watching the RiffTrax versions and nearly pissing oneself at the merciless commentary that practically writes itself as each sequence unspools.

STAR WARS ran its course and served its purpose many, many years ago and as of now it is dead to me. That makes me very sad because its mythology was once a great comfort, but now I guess I've either simply outgrown it or become too discerning to find it appealing anymore. Considering how much other stuff I enjoy that's total crap I doubt I've become any more discerning, but whatever the case, Adios, STAR WARS. I'm out.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

THE JUNGLE PRINCESS (1936)

Chalk up another one to my ongoing quest to see every jungle girl movie ever made, even the crappy ones. Fortunately for me, this was one of the good ones.

Even though the infamous Hays Code served as Hollywood's stringent organ of self-censorship during much of American cinema's Golden Age, every now and then a movie with what would have then been termed "risque" material managed to sneak past the precursors of today's MPAA and such a film was THE JUNGLE PRINCESS. Though often listed as the debut film of legendary sarong-goddess and frequent collaborator with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby in the famed ROAD TO (fill in the blank) movies, Dorothy Lamour, the truth is that she'd been kicking around Tinseltown for a few years in bit parts and this movie was her big break. Looking at it even from a distance of seventy-plus years it's easy to see why Lamour became a star overnight after this one.

Overnight sensation Dorthy Lamour as "jungle princess" Ulah.

The story opens with a cute little girl of about four years old spear-fishing in a stream, her only companion an equally cute tiger cub. Before you get into an uproar over this being one of those "tigers...in Africa???" movies, it's soon made clear we're in Malaysia, which also serves to explain how the darkened-up little actress isn't a Negro (not even one of the familiar cork-blackened Hollywood variety). About two minutes into things the poor tyke's village is utterly decimated, trampled into the ground by an inexplicably pissed-off herd of elephants, leaving the girl an orphan, and when the narrative picks up again it's years later and a bunch of "great white hunter" types — British, natch — find themselves in Malaysia for reasons largely irrelevant to the story's main thrust (so to speak), namely the capture of wild animals. We're told by the understandably annoyed native guide that several such attempts have been thwarted by "the tiger who laughs," a potentially dangerous local legend feared by the superstitious guides, porters, and hunters in the British party's employ.

One of the Brits, a very likable sort named Chris (a shockingly young Ray Milland, who would win a well-deserved Oscar for THE LOST WEEKEND nine years later), has no interest in capturing animals and is along for outdoorsy inspiration that will fuel the completion of the book he's working on. Also along for the ride is his spoiled and veddy British high society fiancee, Ava (Molly Lamont), whose father is the head of the expedition. Ava's instantly pegged by viewers as the real plot complication when she brattily rails against Chris' desire to stay behind and finish his book rather than leave for England and be her lap dog, so it's both a blessing and a curse when she fucks off out of the story for a good bit of the proceedings, thus allowing Chris to get jumped by a huge tiger and meet the beast's companion, Ulah (Lamour). Left for dead by the natives when the tiger — named Limao — showed up, Chris not-so-reluctantly finds himself in the tender and friendly care of Ulah, who of course takes quite a shine to the strange white man. Along with Limao and Ulah there's also a chimp who's the film's obvious knockoff of Cheeta from the concurrently-running Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series, and once Chris joins them they all become one happy family in an idyllic jungle paradise.

As Chris acclimates himself with jungle fantasy living, Ulah, who has presumably had no contact with men other than those she harassed with the help of Limao, reveals a sexually aggressive streak that I can't believe got by the Hays people, especially since her behavior toward Chris leaves no doubt whatsoever as to her intentions. Chris, not being an idiot, cannot help but notice Ulah's advances and suffers the tortures of the damned as he agonizingly stays true to his fiancee despite his obvious (and quite understandable) growing affection for the saronged she-Tarzan. While Ava may be the model of upper-crust Britishness, Ulah's charms are many, including exotic beauty, a very sweet and rather girly nature despite her knack for unassisted survival (unless you count Limao, and I kinda do) in a tropical jungle, and an uninhibited kindness that's nothing short of infectious, and for Chris it's pretty much all over when she sings a song to him in Malay that is very obviously an impassioned love song. Unable to take it anymore, Chris quite unwillingly leaves Ulah and sets off to find his party, unaware that Ulah, Limao, and the chimp are hot on his heels. Needless to say, the shit hits the fan once the presumed-deceased Chris returns and is believed by the natives to be a ghost, followed by "the tiger who laughs" and his toothsome mistress, both of whom are perceived as evil forest spirits who must be killed. Then there's the matter of Ava, who's relieved to see Chris is alive and well...until she meets Ulah and knows she's been pretty much kicked to the curb, thus setting in motion a very much one-sided bit of romantic brinksmanship that forces Chris to wake up and fully acknowledge his feelings for Ulah. But just when you think all of this will be settled in a way reminiscent of some tired bedroom face, things get resolved in a violent native uprising that seems to have swung in from another film entirely, complete with shootings, stabbings, spearings, and Ulah being prepped for a pretty nasty bit of ritual sacrifice while the Brits await presumed execution.

Basically a distaff ripoff of a Weismuller-era Tarzan movie, THE JUNGLE PRINCESS is very charming and it's easy to see how its steamy parts made it a huge hit for Paramount. The chemistry between Lamour and Milland is far more charming than a potboiler like this deserves, and Lamour is simply perfect as a loving and ultra-feminine schoolboy fantasy figure made flesh. Ulah is gorgeous, sweet, nurturing, fun and funny, and for all I know never has a period, so in short the perfect girl. All she wants to do is love up Chris, and I can only imagine what this movie would have been like if its torrid potential had been allowed to flower in full like the uncut version of the classic TARZAN AND HIS MATE (1934), a film neutered upon release by those Hays killjoys and restored decades later. As is, THE JUNGLE PRINCESS is very charming and lively, but the last quarter of the movie seems to be catering to the Tarzan crowd and not to those of us who by that point were more than hooked on the romantic mishegoss. For me the movie was really turned on its ear by the perfunctory action ending — an army of chimps and monkeys, seemingly hundreds of them, come to the rescue, stealing a page from the elephants at the end of most of the MGM Tarzan movies — a move that almost makes it feel like the movie was completed with the final reel of another film altogether.