Sunday, December 28, 2008

Happiness of the Katakuris (2001, Takashi Miike)

The year 2001 defined wacko Japanese director Takashi Miike. His work ethic is nonstop, grinding out two or three movies a year on average. 1999's Audition was making its way through horror circles as a star title of the J-Horror/Asian horror scene and is the only such title that could never be remade like The Ring and The Grudge. On the other hand, they did it to , but this is a guy whose Masters of Horror episode wasn't even allowed to air on pay cable niche programming for disgruntled 80s gorehounds.

2001 defined TM through two incredibly violent and perverted movies, Ichi the Killer and Visitor Q, and this one: a family musical. There's no shortage of weird, but as my genre-adverse mother was able to watch this before I did I can safely say this is a Takashi Miike movie your mother could watch. In making such a life affirming film he gave himself the enigmatic aura of a director who can direct anything, from trendy children's fantasy epics to post modern westerns. An enviable position!

As the Katakuri clan's first customers arrive at their mountaintop bed & breakfast, they die, through no fault of the family's or their own. The family hides the bodies. The perspectives change - the divorcee daughter is looking for love with a royal naval officer, dad and mom are worried about the hotel and junior has just gotten out of jail so he's prime suspect when the first guest kicks off. The songs express feelings rather than move the story along and familial perspectives are given their due.

The weirdness what makes it all worthwhile comes unexpectedly and takes context only from the intent of the songs. When mom and dad sing about their years together and the future of their seemingly cursed hotel, the scene changes from their living room lobby to a 70s style karaoke stage with glittery lights and poofy hair, the way a karaoke stage would have been during their courtship. The lyrics are supered onscreen and highlight in yellow from left to right.

Every scene takes risks with stylization. There are songs in single rooms with flashing strobe lights, there are songs with actors flying on wires. There is a great big Sound of Music familial sing-along holding hands in the green hillside at the climax.

Asian cinema is so comfortable juggling genres within a single film, often over the span of mere minutes in one mood before another, as to put American films to shame when Quentin Tarantino, who has a part in Miike's recent postmodern western Sukiyaki Western Django, loudly proclaims the rare attempt at a psychotic hybrid of sickness and action like Kill Bill. Ichi and a legion of Asian trash effortlessly runs circles around the brain with their irreverence towards old world yakuza violence and outlandish perversion of the family in Visitor Q.

Happiness of the Katakuris taps the lighter, cuter side of Japan's dadaist pop culture into a fable and mediation on family ties and does so in a way that is pleasing to Asian trash junkies and moms alike.

Normality, cuteness, zombie dance. Detractors can call it random for random's sake, but it's not like those zombies weren't part of the story, they were the former hotel guests! If anyone can tell me what those random claymation alien angels were about, please drop me a line.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Graveyard Shift (1990, Ralph S. Singleton)

The most unique thing about Graveyard Shift is its qualifying the short list of movies with end credits that remix sound bites into a closing credits musical montage. Truly a custom of its time. Were producers of the late 80s seriously hoping to get Planes, Trains & Automobiles 12" Del Griffith Ultramix into the clubs?

Ralph S. Singleton has one of the most random resumes I've ever read, from Second Assistant Directing such 70s classics as Taxi Driver and Network to producing a couple of Eddie Murphy's most forgettable 80s movies Harlem Nights and Another 48 Hours. Then in the 90s he produced cheesy big studio thrillers like Murder At 1600 and Tom Clancy's Clear and Present Danger before making cash off lowbrow junk like Juwanna Mann and middlebrow junk like Because of Winn-Dixie.

No wonder he's still working; in between those Eddie Murphy bombs he also managed to produce one of the best late-period 80s Stephen King horror flicks, 1989's Pet Sematary, and its universally derided 1992 sequel. Even the lousiest King adaptation could turn a profit in those days. In 1990 alone there was also the IT miniseries and Misery, in which Rob Reiner created the not-really-a-horror-more-like-a-suspense-thriller genre of horror movies that Silence of the Lambs crystallized a year later.

Singleton must have been a legitimate horror fan to want to make his debut with what was erroneously marketed as a killer rat flick. Unlike the original short story there really aren't any, only a gigantic rat/bat monster who can sometimes sneak up behind people without them even noticing. Must have been easier than training a bunch of rats, which are only prominently featured in the pre-credits death scene and don't come off as remotely threatening. King's story also features a bunch of grossly evolved rats who'd never seen the light of day, like hairless versions without legs. Seeing all the different mutations could've made a great monster movie, but that's beyond this movie's means. With only one monster, all the deaths in the first two acts happen by suggestion until it's time to reveal ratbat.

The pitch:

"Hey, I've got the rights to this short story about some mill workers who go to clean out the basement and get eaten by one or more mutant rats!"

"Fuck off."

"Did I mention it was written by Stephen King?"

"(writing check) How did you say you spelled your name?"

The only movie which better proves how easily anything Stephen King breathed on could be bought up and made into a movie is The Mangler. At least killer rats and/or a rat/bat monster have more potential to be frightening than a possessed industrial laundry folder. More amazing is the fact The Mangler could still get a brief theatrical release in 1995 and two direct to video sequels after that.

Like Robert Englund's starring role in that film, lots of things indicate Graveyard Shift is Direct-To-Video fodder at heart which got theatrically budgeted by grace of King's good name. All the action is set in the single location of a dusty old textile mill and its labyrinthine caverns, which look convincingly dusty and gigantic. We never see the ratbat in full, but as a creature connoisseur I wasn't let down with what they had to show.

Graveyard Shift's proto-DTV requisite ham is Brad Douriff, hot off Child's Play (yes, hot - he played the bad guy in Exorcist III after all,) and giving his best as a 'Nam vet turned exterminator with a personal vendetta against rats for their collaboration with the V.C. in those 1984 style face-eating cages. Sadly he was not made the main character, barely disqualifying Ralph Singleton's sole directorial effort from being worthwhile.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Dangerous Men (2005, John S. Rad)

--Thanks to YouTube user "jdubbs530" for capturing this rare glimpse--

Dangerous Men may or may not be the bad movie event of the decade. Its historical anomaly is unprecedented: an Erotic Action-Thriller filmed in pieces spanning the late 80s to mid 90s by an Iranian emigre named John Yeghanehrad (John Rad to you and me) with a great love for American mainstream trash, a paltry understanding of the English language, and the raw cinematic instincts of Ed Wood.

After years of production, post-production, shifting casts and apparently endless script revisions, this time capsule of glorious ineptitude found its way to a mere six Los Angeles theaters in 2005, of which Rad personally financed along with local television and radio spots.

Then, having fulfilled his life's destiny, he died.

Had he lived another 25 years he might have pulled a Robert Hiltzik, but given the speed of his first production he would've had to start now.

By the grace of LA's Silent Movie Theater, a print was acquired for exhibition as part of both their "HolyFuckingShit" and "Festival of Indulgence" programming series. The latter included Cracking Up / Smorgasboard, making The Silent a strong competitor to The New Bev for finest revival theater in LA.

Now. The way this film was revealed to me was with more or less the information I've stated, and a saucy preview scene different to but roughly the same length as the above clip. As the Silent's curators explained, the greatest enjoyment of this film comes from total ignorance of its proceedings. Describing its heights of earnest stupor would be rather like describing the weaknesses-as-strengths of Plan 9 From Outer Space; an explanation of a joke which entirely unravels any potential unseen enjoyment.

When is the movie coming out? Maybe never, until the next screening. As Rad remains deceased, the rights are in limbo and the cult audience does not yet exist. There are literally perhaps several hundred people who've now seen this film at most. I apologize for this review; it is a necessary failure to plant the seed of curiosity in anyone who happens across this.

Here is the only known interview with the man.

An action suspense, mystery drama

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Revolutionary Road (2008, Sam Mendes)

I'm a trash man and figured the last Leo DiCaprio flick I'd seen was Critters 3: You Are What They Eat. It was actually The Departed, which shows how much an impact he made there.

He's good in this film. I never saw Titanic either, because I've got WILLPOWER, damn it. Winslet is good too, and the whole time I was wondering how they managed to get two leading Hollywood actors together with actual chemistry...

Their chemistry is what saves Revolutionary Road. Everything else is the usual Hollywood suburbia-is-bullshit bullshit they keep witlessly shoving down our throats. Everyone's trapped in their little box of desperation, a trip to Europe is the only way to escape, and if you enjoy your cul-de-sac hell you're probably some annoying fat woman who cries "yoo-hoooooo!" and enjoys gardening.

At least when Richard Yates wrote the novel in the mid-50s, the satire was timely. Now this film merely exists 50 years later so that critics and academics can rub their chins, purse their lips and remark how little things have changed. Like, women still can't get their abortions at the local 7-11! How arcane!

DiCaprio and Winslet's children are mere obstacles to their happiness, and almost total non-entities. Was Yates advocating the cause that adults should pursue their egos selfishly and at the dismissal of their children? Winslet gradually reveals she never wanted to have them or get married or move to the 'burbs in the first place.

DiCaprio comes to realize he doesn't want to give up everything on a wild whim of midlife crisis self-discovery, and is treated as the villain - a weaker human being than his wife, whom he drives to ruin by backing out of her plan. When he ends up by himself raising the children, the implication is that he got the worse deal, the sucker!

Sam Mendes was an obvious choice for the material and he pulls out the same lame bag of tricks he had with American Beauty, namely decorating the suburban houses in Red, White and Blue. There's also a character deemed crazy by society, man, who delivers snippy outbursts of rage at all the conformity around him and is therefore the voice of reason. The second time he does this is in the scene directly after the emotional climax of the movie, to explain how the audience is supposed to feel.

Some executive at Paramount must have been a big fan of Mad Men to greenlight this project, since the period office is the only other location we spend time in outside of the couple's home. Also like Mad Men, one of DiCaprio's period office pals is an obvious closet case and there are busty naive secretaries just waiting to be plucked. Oh, and everyone can smoke indoors again! Can we strike some kind of deal with Hollywood where all actors can smoke indoors in the movies, regardless of the story's period, just because smoking makes actors look so good?

The studio lot audience I saw this film with laughed their butts off at all the right moments, snickering their superiority at bourgeois normalcy. Doesn't matter if the plebes in flyover country go to see it or not, it's awards season Oscar bait and if they gotta make a movie without Batman, it may as well reinforce their sense of superiority over non-artistic-types, the commoners. Then it's back to projects that actually make money - special effects flicks for international audiences.

If nothing else, Yates was prophetic of the coming eternal adolescence in our society and contempt for procreation as an inconvenience to the self-indulgence of eternal adolescents. Revolutionary Road is a well made drama full of sad scoldings our society already took to heart long ago.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Cracking Up / Smorgasboard (1983, Jerry Lewis)

Jerry Lewis is the only comedian to come after the silent era masters Chaplin and Keaton who was also able to direct himself.

His early to mid 60s output oscillated between the full yin and yang of his psychology. His yin was the sad clown, seen in Cinderfella and The Family Jewels whose maudlin sentimentality sabotaged his humor. God bless his raging Yang - the spastic retard who makes The Ladies' Man, The Disorderly Orderly (directed by Looney Tunes alum Frank Tashlin) and The Patsy indispensable viewing for screwball and slapstick fans.

In those films a mere dollop of sentimentality is reserved for when it is appropriate, and Lewis' private sadness is truly felt. He steps forward from the stage after the pratfall, leans in close and whispers into your ear that he has never felt truly loved or understood. Then he climbs back up and makes you laugh again. The break in the comedy is not studio-dictated pathos, it is his own.

He gently reminds us the spastic retard shtick is an escape from the harsh realities of life, which are so very rarely funny. In today's era of comedy which smugly restate life's indignities ultimately with resignation - Seinfeld, The Office, - or glibly embrace pop culture nihilism - Robot Chicken, The Soup, VH1 - Lewis' films have become funnier than ever in their happy idiot purity while the real Lewis crumbled into depression at the knowledge that airline food jokes, and ironic jokes ABOUT airline food jokes were the future. His legacy is so much more meat for pop culture cannibals who duplicate his persona as "Professor Frink" on The Simpsons and then HIRE THE REAL JERRY to play his father many seasons later.

Cracking Up, aka Smorgasboard, is Jerry's big fuck-you to all of that. To everyone who'd written him off in his heyday, to every young comedian who was draining comedy to dusty dryness, and even to his fans, by giving them too much of a good thing for their final meal. Eat your fill, go throw up at the vomitorium in the lobby, and c'mon back inside because this is it, this is the last time, all you nice people!

The opening scene is classical. As the opening credits roll, Jerry walks into his psychiatrist's office and cannot stop slipping on the shiny plastic which coats the floor, the furniture, everything. The titles inform us the title theme is sung by Marcel Marceau, and when the "Music By" credit comes up, the soundtrack cuts out. Funny stuff, but Jerry is going to dig a lot deeper into our heads than that.

The psychiatrists' questions lead to some sketches which signal the depths of indulgence to come: Jerry as a 10 year old boy, Jerry as a French prisoner on Devil's Island. Their relation to Jerry's character is completely arbitrary because Jerry's character has no story except to go to the psychiatrist's office, except that only seems to happen during the first third of the film. Then he goes to bank, and when he leaves we stay in the bank to watch a silent skit about some robbers, led by Jerry in false teeth.

Then something else happens and the suspicion sets in that 80 percent of the film was written before the framing device of the psychiatrist and his patient were created. And even that was reduced to a bookend rather than a continuous context. This is plotlessness elevated to some kind of throwdown; he's going to make you laugh, story or not.

One moment that encapsulates the utter disorientation of Cracking Up is a gag which lasts 10 seconds. Between one gag scene and another, neither of which have any connection, Jerry's psychiatry patient is seen at a dance with many other couples. The camera pulls back to reveal they are dancing on their knees. A mere trick of perspective.

Aaaaand scene!! Next!!! C'mon people, we're squeezing in as many gags as we can!!!

The disjointed pacing either lasts just long enough for you to get the joke and then move on, or it lingers like passerbys gawk at a car wreck. When Jerry's psychiatrist brings him to the top of a tall building to get over his fear of heights. He repeats to himself over and over that there's nothing to be afraid of. Gradually, ever so gradually, a big King Kong gorilla hand enters the frame to grab his psychiatrist. By my count, it takes a year for the hand to enter the frame, another year for it to drag the psychiatrist away, and eight weeks to linger on Jerry finally opening his eyes and not knowing where his psychiatrist went.

No sad clowns here. No pathos, no plot, just one gag after another at the pace only a dying man can deliver. Lucid, but occasionally taking an hour to remember his old army buddy's name. The DVD could be a long way away, but don't worry - nothing can possibly prepare you.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Prowler (1981, Joseph Zito)

Joseph Zito reveled in filth before and after the film, directing Chuck Norris in Invasion USA and Jason Voorhees in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter. The latter is considered by many fans to be the best Friday, something I've never understood. If it's a better slasher than Prowler that's only because Zito had the advantage of a slasher icon.

Tom Savini does the gore effects for Prowler as he also did for The Final Chapter, and even those are comparatively lackluster. Zito has some instincts for creating a sense of place - there's one genuinely great sequence involving four people going in and out of the same small room and getting offed - but no knack for making the deaths themselves effective. The camera lingers stupidly on the aftermath just long enough to take the wind out of Savini's efforts.

The most memorable death is memorable mainly for being physically impossible. This isn't necessarily a bad thing when it comes to Savini deaths. Everyone in Day of the Dead is made of Play-Dough, but the tearings-apart happen with such operatic flair that it doesn't matter. The Prowler has less macabre imagination than the average...well, Friday the 13th sequel. Given Savini's comparative work of the time, the similarly micro-budgeted The Burning and Maniac, the results suggest he was out of good ideas on this one.

The other memorable impossibility is the revelation of the killer's identity, unexpected and seemingly clever for a moment by the way it ties into a subtle detail before, but then hey waittaminnit, it doesn't make any god damned logistical sense and you're left scratching your head.

The filler between the killing time counts in a flick like this and the worst offense possible is to let your victims be boring. This is what makes most of the Fridays unwatchable, compared to even the most unwatchable Nightmare On Elm Street. Without the future star victim power of Corey Feldman or Crispin Glover, Zito again fails to make this film less boring than the most overrated Friday he would direct two years later.

Slash trash lives and dies by excellence within a rigid formula stolen from Halloween, and sadly The Prowler made me realize that Tom Savini's magic touch isn't enough to make a moderately competent execution of that formula worthwhile.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Cujo (1983, Lewis Teague)

You can count on Dee Wallace Stone to act her head off.

In the era of 80s "Scream Queens" she was the most unlikely; the oldest, the classiest, the most legitimate actress. She fought beasts but didn't bare breasts. She was your mom. When desert cannibals struck, when pervert werewolves attacked, when maneating furballs showed up at the farm, when slimy penis head aliens were in your closet, Dee Wallace had your back once she was done shrieking and crying. First panicked, then striking with the fury of a woman whose offspring are in mortal danger. Damned if her histrionics didn't make you believe those puppets could bite, too.

Cujo is an underrated film on several accounts and especially for Wallace's finest hour as the mother besieged inside a broken down Pinto by a rabid St Bernard. The premise is a throwaway sick joke, a piano falling on an old lady. The storytelling amps up the stakes into their primal essence the way Spielberg's Duel did for road rage. 1983 also saw Stephen King adaptations from Carpenter and Cronenberg and even without the genre prestige, Lewis Teague affords the film a classy, novelistic pace. Subplots from the book are rearranged and parsed down cunningly. Wallace's extramarital affair and Cujo's rapidly worsening foamy mouth are contrasted even better on film than the book was able to do in print. Elmer Bernstein's score is typically fantastic.

The first death does not even occur until halfway through the runtime, at which point the rollercoaster drops from the top of the hill. Pure class. Stephen King's trash paradoxically necessitates a touch of class for any successful film. His personal stab at pure trash delerium, Maximum Overdrive, could only last through the first act before running out of steam and trying to make you care about a romance.

Cujo is maybe the most concise King novel ever, with only six main characters and a dog. At the heart of the story there is merely a family unit in danger, first by betrayal and then by the teeth of ol' Cooj. Except that's not grand enough for King in the novel; the dog may actually be posessed by the spirit of The Castle Rock Killer, last seen in The Dead Zone and now speaking to Wallace's son as a malevolent boogeyman in his closet. The first few chapters that illustrate young Tad's fear of the dark, and his room, and the sadistic nature of evil that children comprehend on a gut level when they begin to have nightmares are easily the best of the book. They're the only part that Teague couldn't do better in live action, and are relegated to a disarmingly cute scene in which Tad runs to bed after turning the lights out. It's a bit heavy to shoehorn into a story about a rabid dog, less logical than the ghostly allusions around the living car Christine (which Carpenter excised from his film out of convenience - it's more fun not to know. This quintessential King theme would get its full exercise a couple years later with IT.

Oh yeah, the kid dies in the book. The dark forces from the impenetrable beyond win. King never receieved so much hate mail in his life!

Teague never had much of a career. All anyone remembers him for is this and his other creature feature, the John Sayles-penned Alligator, which isn't half as good as this. His biggest commercial success, Navy SEALS, is admired mostly by illiterates.

Sayles also penned The Howling and years later, Dee Wallace appeared in Alligator II: The Mutation. What does it all mean? For one brief and shining moment, the perfect director met the perfect actor for the perfect project. Shame no one noticed.

Who Let The Dog Out?
- brilliant DVD reissue tagline

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Return to Sleepaway Camp (2008, Robert Hiltzik)

Every 25 years Robert Hiltzik rises from total obscurity to make a Sleepaway Camp movie. What circumstances kept Hiltzik's only further brush with cinema to his turn as "Fred Myers" in the 2002 horror short Grandma's Secret Recipe? As other horror aisle creeps had, I'd seen the Pamela Springsteen adorned cover of the official 1988 horror-comedy sequel and watched it first...

Before seeing the original 1983 slasher classic I'd written the 2003 announcement of production off as the type of cash-in only made possible by the internet. Like a Mortal Kombat vs Batman video game. Instead I was struck by the raw dumb power of doom tone poetry and authentic Summer Camp experiences relived, proving once again that most Friday the 13th ripoffs are better than the originals. The twist ending has also become an internet/pop culture punchline, look for it soon on Family Guy and Jimmy Kimmel.

Return to Sleepaway Camp is unique to any horror sequel of its kind. Hiltzik has reappeared out of the mist to make a slasher movie the way he would've if this were still 1983. The teens and adolescents don't use cell phones. Hell, even the counsellors aren't using cell phones once the shit hits the fan. There's no attempts at modern slang and the only pop culture reference is to The Beastie Boys' 1998 single Intergalactic. Every character is basically the archetype they need to be, from mean jocks to sassy black girls to scrawny nerdlings.

Shockingly several members of the 1983 original have returned, to almost no consequence. They're there to be the only ones who could know what's going on when the killings begin. They also know that since the original film's killer has billing in the opening titles, it's probably her again. And it is, or is it? (It is.) The real question is why anyone from the original would be working anywhere near that damn camp.

The structure is not vintage, on the other hand. The second murder doesn't even happen until the third act. This is a more logical choice plot-wise than the original, which peppered the murders throughout each act while the camp stays open and no kids are sent home despite a murderer being on the loose. Here, the first killing looks like an accident and is written off as such, sealing some more kids' fates. Hiltzik admirably retains one of the more shocking aspects of the original, that kids under 16 could get snuffed. No one is safe! He also sometimes reuses the original's frequent choice to show only the aftermath of murders, as gruesome special effects still life.

All of these aspects are quirky and delicious and secondary only to introducing - and he does get an "introducing" opening credit, how old school is that - Michael Gibney as Alan, the fat kid whom everyone hates. Killings aside, this film is his one note story.

Summer Camp is trial by fire. The herding of children and teenagers into single areas untouched (at least until cell phones and Internet) by suburban niceties is a daily liberation full of danger and romance; only unguarded prisoners and the worlds they have made.

In this jungle there is invariably one kid who's kind of nuts, kind of out there. Universally despised by the staff and other kids, his life becomes a daily hell punctuated by outbursts and even a moment of violence that might send you home...only Hiltzik's Sleepaway Camps make the fine point of turning such angst into a slasher flick. Jason Voorhees of Friday the 13th or for that matter Cropsy (who gets a shout-out) of The Burning are the campfire boogeymen of Summer Camp. And then there's that poster for Unhappy Campers...

Angela Baker was the picked upon outcast of the original who was revealed to be the killer. It was who you thought it was and not the red herring who had his own subplot. Here the subplot is the main plot and the fact Angela returns to kill is robbed of some of its surprise in the by the sado-comic Hiltzik-less .

While this movie may not be as openly sado-comic as those, you will at some point be giggling at the nonstop torment of fat annoying victimized Alan. It's nowhere near as subtle as Felissa Rose's touchingly shy portrayal of Angela and her burgeoning first crush. The ending tries so hard but don't expect anything as full frontal as the original...

Kids can be so mean
- tagline

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Point (1971, Fred Wolf)

Harry Nilsson is damn good and damned forgotten. From nearly the last generation of old fashioned self employed American/a singer/songwriters during the 70s, Nilsson also had a prolific film career beginning with Everybody's Talkin' from Midnight Cowboy in '69 and ending rather permanently with his death in 1994. Meanwhile Randy Newman was turning his attentions to film entirely after firing on both cylinders between film, 80s pop and the same magical 70s brand of wry, lyrical and skillfully polished tune-grinding. Between them and Paul Williams, a pattern of magical elfishness emerges.

The Point was originally Nilsson's 1970 foray into the lovely rock opera rash catching on since the previous year with Tommy by The Who. The album tracks are "Chapter" one through eight and narrated by Nilsson as a fable. In the land of pointy headed people and things, Oblio is born with a round head and must wear a pointy cap to at least attempt fitting in. His only friend is his dog Arrow. One day they are banished to the "forrest of pointlessness," only to discover that everything has "a point" after all - pointed philosophical metaphors ensue. Nilsson's narration is what tells the story, and his songs are merely reflective. "Me and My Arrow," the radio play hit, is simply a four verse melody as opposed to a musical with medleys of characters.

Unfortunately The Point (1971) the animated tv movie has a script. This would not be a problem were the film live action. By 1971 traditional American animation was pretty much beyond modest improvement for the next 16 years before Ralph Bakshi and John Kricfalusi's Mighty Mouse and Ren & Stimpy made the uptick of the 1990s possible by sheer shameless imitation.

Consequently Oblio goes from the shapeless pastel imitation of The Beatles' Yellow Submarine into this Ziggy-looking fleck smattering of sickening wholesomeness. Dig the dog. Everything looks this ugly and the acting is nothing but generic poses.

The dialogue is all unfunny filler, as dialogue from "writers" who stole the medium with zero talent would now do in all television animation. The Point has all the awful trends of animated features to come, except this one is made even moree (in)offensively cute by the new yuppie cowardice and self-righteous need to condescend to children. They must have hated them and now we have "cartoons" by cartoon "writers" like Adult Swim, grown up children with consequently stunted imaginations.

A decent animated film would've been the length of the album and half the length of the movie, which saccharinely pads itself with talkiness. The guy who wrote the script went on to do exactly nothing and the director Fred Wolf became a successful peddler of bad ugly faux-cute cartoons all through the 70s and 80s like Strawberry Shortcake and junk with marquee value like James Bond Jr.

Oblio became Sprout, the fruit of The Jolly Green Giant's loins, who is a vegetable.

For a Nilsson musical with balls for the whole family, watch Popeye in its new widescreen dvd.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Zach and Miri Try To Make An Apatow Movie

Zach and Miri Make a Porno Movie is about to disappear down the memory hole with Kevin Smith's career close behind. Or so it has seemed with each of his most recent films, each an increasingly desperate attempt at reinvention. I chronicle this descent into irrelevance full of schadenfreude.

Let's begin with the recent interview he gave to The Onion AV Club filled with delicious nuggets of self-loathing and heralded by this picture:

This is one of Kevin Smith's basic fat slob dork (to quote Kthor) stock expression for publicity stills, on the red carpet or in an environment where he actually had time to think of something else and this is what he's got.

These belong to the classic "nerd family of photo poses" that include the popular quizzical-raised-eyebrow-while-stroking-the-barely-hairy chin:

So, the slips! The peeks into the aperture! First there's the usual self-deprecation about his own writing, which only sounds worse the more time passes, followed by a foot-stamping show of indignance over the low standards he's created for himself.

Italics mine.

AVC: You've drawn criticism in the past for writing dialogue that all sounds like one extended monologue.

KS: I get accused a lot of every character sounding like me. Which I'm like, "Well, it stands to reason." [Laughs.] Because I did write every character.

AVC: Do you think writing with Seth in mind helped Zack And Miri sound different?

KS: No more than so than writing with Ben in mind, or Jason Lee in mind, or Jason Mewes. Once I have the person, I start writing to that voice, so it wasn't different. It wasn't like, "Wow, writing for Seth suddenly made it completely different than everything else." To me, it was part of the same process. But I think for some reason, the movie scores points, or it gets looked at in a positive light by people, simply by virtue of the fact that it doesn't have Jay and Silent Bob in it. It's not set in New Jersey, it's not part of the Askewniverse, it's not interconnected with references to my other movies. So nobody's sitting there saying, "Oh, he's self-indulgently making that same fucking movie again." Suddenly, by virtue of the fact that it's got people I haven't worked with before, and it's set in Pittsburgh, people treat it like a "real movie." [Laughs.]

.....But it's been weird watching people react to this movie as if "It's a new step, a new direction for that fucking Clerks guy." And really, to me, it's just like the other ones. It just doesn't have Jay and Bob in it.

Smith is nothing if not passionate about his own lack of originality and development yet he needs to be perceived as having new things to offer. What a painful niche, being beholden to fanboys while trying to sustain a career with mass audiences.

The need for mainstream audiences is why he got Seth Rogen. So dig how hard he tries to put on the aw-shucks spin regarding the matter.

AVC: Because of Seth's presence, do you worry about comparisons to Judd Apatow's movies dogging this film?

KS: Let me tell you something: If the whole world mistook it for a Judd Apatow movie, I'd be a happy fucking camper. As long as it did that Judd Apatow business, fine, they can call it a Judd Apatow movie all they want. [Laughs.] No, not at all. I like Judd, and I like the movies that Judd has done quite a bit. When I saw 40-Year-Old Virgin, I was like, "Wow, somebody made a movie that I would have made." Since we did Clerks, I've seen many comedies, but nobody was doing that thing that we did where you mix raunch and sweetness and sentimentality. And Judd did it, and he was insanely commercially successful with it. For years, I thought that if you want to make a movie that mixes raunch and sentimentality, you have a $30 million box-office ceiling, because people aren't interested. You know: "You got your chocolate in my peanut butter." They want a raunchy comedy or they want a romantic comedy, or they want something serious or something comedic. The blend never seemed to go beyond our highest mark of $30 million. Then 40-Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up and Superbad shattered that completely, and suddenly it turned the type of movie that I love making into something commercially viable. Suddenly I felt like, "My job just got much easier in terms of trying to sell this." So thank God there's a Judd Apatow. Not to mention he brought us Seth Rogen. Without Seth Rogen, I've got no Zack And Miri.

The obvious question is, if Judd Apatow has merely been making the kind of films Kevin Smith pioneered, why have none of Smith saccharine-slob films since Clerks been major hits with lasting impact? Obvious answer is, he spent the subsequent 15 years catering to his base of obsessives rather than develop new communication skills. These were not comedies that women went to. They were aimed at the demographic whose aspiration is to sound like Brodie, or Randall, or Jay, or their Hollywood story whoring wannabe standup author.

Smith's refusal to grow is illuminated quite well by comparison to Judd Apatow's recent successes. The 40 Year Old Virgin is a classical premise. Had it been made in the 70s or 80s it may have been called Better Late Than Never. The unexpected success and continued viability of Apatow's brand came from a few factors that have escaped Smith's comprehension.

Jovial vulgarity aside - no one has a trademark on that - the only similarity these two men's films share is the empathy afforded to characters. Imagine Rob Schneider playing Steve Carrel's part for a reminder of how such comedian-vehicles are usually ground out.

Being relatable is something else. Guys may sit around calling each other gay, but when we see this as a movie scene, are they going to sound like real guys you would know or will they sound like a jabberjaw screenwriter with no editor? Seth Rogen's star was made the instant he told his sparring partner that he was gay because he listens to Coldplay.

In all of Kevin Smith's hyper-verbiage, he's never been able to write a funny line that sounds like a funny line from your real friend in real life. In his world everyone's got entire comedic monologues memorized and ready to go. Even the more likable characters from any of his films are hardly relatable, except possibly from the first Clerks.

Apatow's know-how-I-know-you're-gay scene is so casually politically incorrect and honestly true to life that it utterly deflates Smith's previous occasional forays into gay shtick as the snickering Catholic boy fodder they are. Innuendos between Jay & Silent Bob, Dante & Randal, Kevin Smith Guy A and Kevin Smith Guy B...No wonder Zach and Miri has a female Kevin Smith Guy B and a gay couple who are actual characters and not punchlines. Apatow figured out that grown Gen-Xers are, well, grown, and include women who don't laugh compulsively at male gay panic.

Smith's hyperbolic dirtiness is all contrivance, like 37 or stink palm. When Apatow gets flithy, there's reality-based context, like being thrown up on or giving birth. This is the difference between a manchild geek's perspective and that of normal people who also happen to go see comedy movies. Apatow knows that real life is funniest and often contains vulgarity. His films honestly reflect that worldview, eliminating the choice of sides between detached, debased young hipsters and the older squares in Middle America.

Compare also the ludicrousness of Smith's films more heralded for their drama and maturity. 1995's Mallrats, Smith's follow-up to Clerks, was panned for being a 90 minute sitcom with dirty jokes and comic book geekery. The 1997 reaction was Chasing Amy, starring renowned dramatist Ben Affleck and critically renowned for a more mature romantic story that showed Smith's maturity.

At the time, he took the compliments and wouldn't self-deprecatingly point out the ludicrousness of plot. Now he will. Chasing Amy is about a lesbian who turns straight after sleeping with Affleck. At various points Star Wars and comic books are discussed.

Compare that to The 40 Year Old Virgin or Knocked Up. From the titles alone we understand the potential for outrageous comedy, while losing your virginity or knocking a girl up are near-universal experiences with the potential for real human drama, not merely sitcom misunderstandings.

Here Forgetting Sarah Marshall must be singled out for being the least authentic, most sitcom-esque Judd Apatow production. The supporting cast is still more recognizably human than a Smith film.

Smith's sole sincere attempt at human dramedy was Jersey Girl, a bomb with nerds and normals alike, reinforcing the evidence that Smith has no capacity for combining sweetness and sickness, only oscillation between the two.

Zach and Miri is his stab at imitating another filmmaker through the co-option of his star player. observed that for an overnight star, Seth Rogen has been successful only in films written by himself or Apatow. If he can't save him, who can?

Apatow has also bested Smith by having a better couture of actor-comedian-friends. Seeing Jason Mewes or Jeff Anderson show up isn't a pleasant surprise anymore, it's a pathetic reminder that all of Smith's pre-celebrity friends are still the only cornerstone of his cottage industry. Especially after Clerks 2.

Oh, and Star Wars. The titular porno is "Star Whores." The characters think it's funny, which is out of character even for a bunch of nerds Kevin Smith based on himself. Which suggests again that less than Jersey Girl, but more so than ever before, Smith needed this movie to appeal to normals and women. Which it didn't.

'Nuff said, true believers!

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Last House On The Left Part 1

And the road leads to nowhere

Has there ever been a famous horror director as Wes Craven whose work is so continuously epochal despite running the gamut from ridiculously bad shit to total brilliance with such random flucuations? For all the branding foresight John Carpenter had in attaching his name to Halloween he never made another horror picture that changed the way we thought about them (only The Thing comes close.) Tobe Hooper is synonymous with The Texas Chainsaw Massacre but his entire subsequent genre career was sabotaged by bad luck and Steven Spielberg. Even George Romero's zombies overshadow his other fine entries, and the he directed in recent years didn't have the power to reanimate the trend of the living dead once again - if anything, they've put a bookend on the revival of zombies which actually began with the Romero-inspired Resident Evil video game.

Craven's major horror works are eponymous to the genre even for people who don't watch horror movies. This is largely due to the fact his successful films rode the fuckin' zeitgeist: A Nightmare On Elm Street is the ultimate 80s slasher film for combining the template with the special effects revolution. Scream is one of the most infuriating horror movies I've ever seen, coupling the cynical exploitation of nostalgia (a new thing at the time) with the godawful 1990s-present trend of post-ironic-sarcastic-hipster-speak. The film's box office and cultural impact cannot be denied.

Taking two steps back historically there is 1971's The Last House On The Left. A title that needs no introduction and a film that needs more discussion as seemingly everyone has heard of it yet no one gives Craven his due, save director Jon Keeyes' seminal documentary The American Nightmare. Keeyes puts Last House and every other significant horror film from Craven's aforementioned contemporaries into the context of the social and political turmoil of the 60s and 70s, and if there were ever a horror film whose apocalyptic vision of the times was worn right on the sleeve, this is it. Even more explicitly than Texas Chainsaw a couple years later, which I shall no longer regard as the modern horror film to bring the monsters out of Transylvania, make them human, and drop them into the American backyard armed with sadistic depravity rather than vampire fangs. Even the quasi-verite shaky-cam 16mm photography beats Tobe to the punch.

The reason Texas Chainsaw has already been remade twice before Last House (oh don't worry, it's coming) is Leatherface. For all of Chainsaw's well deserved rep as a progenitor of gritty and down-to-Earth horror films, there is still an iconic monster. So too has Psycho in Norman Bates, another inspiration from the , but it's an Alfred Hitchcock movie at the end of the day and you never begin to feel the action onscreen may actually be happening. Night of the Living Dead's newsreel verite gave credence to the idea the dead were actually walking about, but they're still zombies.

The Last House On The Left is the most excruciatingly uncomfortable fashioning of low budget, verite style and social commentary in horror films imaginable for the era it was made in. Even Wes shudders to look back on the sheer bleakness he was capable of as a first time filmmaker.

There is no glorification of death here. There is no glorification of the killers. There is no sympathy for the victims, or their avengers. There is risible contempt for the law in the form of country-fried comic relief vignettes about a bumbling sheriff which jarringly occur intermittently throughout the brutal main plot, mocking the distance between the two. The viewing experience is akin to a horror passion play: a mathematical formula for suffering alongside the helpless protagonists until the inevitable conclusion mercifully comes. The lights fade up and you re-enter reality, cleansed by the end of the terror and relief that it was only a movie...only a movie...only a movie...

Despite some trivia to the contrary, the legendary William Castle created that perfect tagline in 1964 with the Joan Crawford trash staple Straight-Jacket. But Last House sure as hell deserves it for making the requisite murders of a "horror movie" so horrifyingly protracted and real. Ironically the film's producer Sean S. Cunningham would go on to produce the most callous franchise of death porn until Saw parts 1-5 and counting, the Friday the 13th series.

The brutality of this film's mind lays in the fact that for all of Craven's sensitivity to the times - he was briefly an English professor before directing, and later produced a documentary about the Kent State shootings in 1981 - the point of this film is to make you understand in no uncertain terms that all that youthful idealism and naivete is going to get you slaughtered. Texas Chainsaw may have had hippies getting bumped off by cannibal rednecks, but Tobe Hooper's interest in that aspect was more or less limited to the victims' choice of transportation (a van,) wardrobe, and the idle readings of an astrological guidebook just prior to when the trouble begins.

Last House doesn't even cast hippies but teen girls who would've dated hippies to anger their parents. The threadbare setup shows a pair of happy-go-lucky naifs on their way to the big city to see the rock band "Bloodlust." Mom and Dad can't believe what their little girl is wearing, and then they're off. Somewhere in the back of Sean S. Cunningham's head, the setup is misinterpreted for the equation that mild infractions against pre-60s social mores = death.

Meanwhile, a gang of four escaped convicts holes up in an apartment in the big city. The leader is named Krug, pronounced as you would "Freddy Krueger." Wes must've really hated that childhood bully to bestow horror movie immortality on his name, twice.

Krug (last one on the left, above) an unforgettable is simultaneously so mean as to pop a child's balloon with a cigarette the first time we see him, and keep his own son, a fellow escapee, hooked on heroin to keep him in line. The cruelty of the entire gang (one man and woman aside from Krug & son) is characterized much the same way: cheesily traditional and yet sadistic beyond the laws of movie tradition, especially for 1972.

The woman is a straight cliche ditzy gun moll. She's crude and dumb. "Aaahhh, shyyaaadapp!" The first we hear of her is on the radio: she kicked a dog to death. For the fact she could be stealing a priceless necklace while Lucy & Ethel solve the mystery, we know she's capable of some real violence later on and doesn't disappoint.

"It's only a movie..." is not only a warning, there is ironic resonance within said movie's tone. This is not really a horror movie. It is a horrific movie.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Robocop - Mindless Self Indulgence - Harry Truman

I admit whole heartedly that Mindless Self Indulgence is a guilty middle school favorite of someone who doesn't listen to a lot of music.

Here is a musical tribute to the other greatest American hero besides Batman. We'll see how long before MSI or Robo's lawyers file a complaint in the matter of their client's celebration of awesomeness!

The opening scene is from MGM's recent DVD Robocop Special Edition, in which Nancy Allen quotes Ronny Cox's throwaway quotation of the last Democrat to effectively fight fascism. Producer Jon Davison (Piranha, Airplane!, White Dog) claims Robocop is fascism for liberals. The great thing about movie satire is that it innately glorifies its targets on the big screen.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Nuke'Em High Is Top of Troma's Class

Troma ever really only made two great in-house productions as we know them. The film's original title, "Atomic High School," is a phrase as meaningless yet utterly evocative as "Toxic Avenger."

"The Toxic Avenger" invented its own genre by throwing about 30 years of postwar trash cinema and culture into a single film - slashers, vigilante and revenge flicks, high school sex comedies (which Troma briefly specialized in before Toxie) - and embracing the new mood of humor/horror in epochal 1985 with less class, less intelligence and more New Jersey accents than any of their more polished zombie competition in the theaters: and Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator officially making zombies walking gore gags waiting to happen.

Pat Ryan, of the Toxic Avenger and the Fake Troma Movie "Street Trash"

Amongst all the trash hooks Troma threw into a cuisinart for Toxie to happen was the vague intonation of a super hero story. Nerd Melvin falls into a barrel of toxic waste and hulks up into an ugly deformed strongman. Something about this is as conceptually weird in the American way as a high school built too close to a nuclear plant and now some strange mutations are happening to the students!

Lloyd Kaufman embraced the filmic Capra-esque small town, the dumb styles and moods of the moment and filtered it all through a deliberate bad-taste filter of gory gags about death and told it with breathless brashness. The offhandedness in which the guilty and innocent must suffer for our amusement results in choices like preceding a gag about putting a snake down the back of a gay aerobics instructors shirt with the infamous 80s style child thrill kill head crush.

The man whose hands helped decide such neurologically confrontational ordering of scenes was editor Richard W. Haines. Credited in Nuke'Em as co-director with Lloyd Kaufman's pseudonym Samuel Weil (as with Toxie) Haines was replaced by Kaufman abruptly after he nearly drove the cast to quit several days into filming. His full contribution is unknown, possibly as little as one or two scenes.

Fortunately Haines is still the editor, and frantically compensates for his missed directorial opportunity with a bravura level of intensity. There's a ridiculous level of incidental close-ups, reaction shots, exteriors and other assorted second unit work that when combined with Kaufman's cluttered Mad magazine shot compositions makes for a far more polished and confident experience.

Keith Harring posters and a long line of makeouts behind the dialogue

Class of Nuke 'Em High (or Nukem if you prefer) doesn't merely excel at continuing the promise of Troma Toxic Avenger created. Its handily better on a technical level and is second only for basing itself in part on Mark L. Lester's amazing Class of 1984 from two years prior, and the short history of straightlaced gangs-in-school movies. Toxie will always wear the crown for original irreverence. To Nuke 'Em's credit, violence from post-apocalyptic punks in schools is always best played as a joke.

Part of the sheer breeziness is the 2nd-unit assisted mass of secondary characters, but to be fair, the main character roles are also highly archetypal within the context of a high school movie - the wholesome young all-American couple, their goofball horndog and bimbo friends. Kaufman's handling of actors was essentially still the same as when he made Waitress! or Squeeze Play!, the late 70s / early 80s sex comedic style. There's a deceptive filmic normalcy in the contrast that results from embracing popular film trends and allowing the underlying presence of extreme sex or violence to bubble forth half the time.

Normal looking extras, instead of the visiting Troma fans used since 1996

Take also for example the soundtrack. As with Toxic Avenger some legitimate and long-forgotten contemporary singers and one or two bands were hired to write original songs that are completely indistinguishable from any generic 80s youth movie you could imagine. Where Toxic Avenger contained cheesy disco workout music and power love ballads, Nuke'Em is all "rock and roll" that rolls on and on until the pavlovian movie-watching synapses going off in your brain become hypnotic. The better to contrast mental aberrations from the shockingly great trash premise of an "atomic high school" like seeing a clean cut 80s preppie vomit up a mutant.

Frequent comparisons to Toxic Avenger are warranted by the inclusion of many of the same bit players and two major characters from Kaufman's brief Preston-Sturges-Goes-To-Hell-Via-New-Jersey entourage. Robert Pritchard and Gary Shneider, first the hit and run bullies Bozo and Slug, now and Spike of radioactive joint selling school gang The Cretins. Switching roles from Toxie, Schneider is a kilted lackey to Pritchard as he blows Timothy Van Patten's punk gang leader part from Class of 1984 clean out of the water.

A typically strong and fleeting shot - Pritchard's intro

Be sure to watch for the cameo by Jennifer Baptist, then-wife of Pritchard and girlfriend to his character in Toxic Avenger...In an interview she said they met making out in the back of that death race car.

Though further Troma in-house productions would be set in Tromaville, Class of Nuke'Em High was the first and functions perfectly as a semi-sequel running on the same steam. Why also did Kaufman's film cinematography begin to look like straight-to-video with the very next in-house production, the ill-fated Troma's War? That title itself signaled the coming solipsism of the Troma brand and loss of the subtle chemistry that made these two gems so incredibly subversive and fun.

Deus Ex Mutant

Friday, September 19, 2008

HBO Jumps Aboard The Poster Swipe Express

I'm sure this happened unwittingly, meaning to reference the Bangkok Dangerous poster without knowing the source it was stealing from second-hand.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

You Don't Have To Be Gay To Love Mommie Dearest

You don't have to be gay to love Mommie Dearest, you only need have at least a made the passing acquaintance with childhood traumas like single motherhood, alcoholism, beatings and violence, disappointment, step-parents, obsessive demands, parent-child jealousy...a profoundly sad film with something to unsettle everyone. A quick survey of IMDB user comments shows a empathic outcry that many of their mothers were like Joan to some degree.

Joan the iconic bad Hollywood mother is at least as famous as Joan Crawford or Faye Dunaway ever were, or at least Faye Dunaway. This was the career killer to end them all because it was too intense for most people handle and were approaching it as The Joan Crawford Story or something.

Mommie Dearest is a glossy Hollywood production which inadvertedly does far more than it set out to do; distill the collective unconscious of parent-child trauma into a single unforgettable performance. The visceral gut feelings that result aren't usually found outside trash. Mommie Dearest wasn't even the first time that Hollywood big budget trash about the lifestyle of diva show business and its equally outrageous dark side became canonized into cult status by the gay community. One of them starring Joan Crawford and Bette Davis - the unforgettable Whatever Happened To Baby Jane?, another landmark in depicting the sadism of abusive has-beens (with familial ties, yet!)

Faye Dunaway and Joan Crawford's careers also share a palpable downfall, although whereas Joan headlined for lovable shlock peddlers like William Castle and Hammer Studios vet Freddie Francis...

Dunaway has been reduced to hideous direct-to-video studio garbage:

Mommie Dearest's other strength is the aforementioned vile vitriol for show business neurosis and insanity amongst its inhabitants, a subject few movies broached with any intent to shock with cynicism and brutality. This is on par with Todd Haynes' mondo Barbie underground biopic, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Need I say it? Haynes is gay as well.

Extremely deft director Frank Perry juxtaposes two moods: The terror perpetual victim Christina Crawford must endure, Christ-like, after the initial euphoria of adoption and early childhood pass, and "the Hollywood star's life" as Joan Crawford obsessively lives by and shames her daughter with. The time when Hollywood invested in propaganda campaigns protecting the wholesome images of its stars has passed with the era of actual bona fide stars like Crawford, making Mommie Dearest all the more compelling as a period piece.

The period this film was made in was also a strange moment, Star Wars and Steven Spielberg films were ushering the age of the non-Oscar Bait adult dramatic film out the back door. The few remaining ones have a heavy layer of melancholy hanging over them. And the ones that did win Oscars...well, how depressing was Ordinary People?

For those who need one more tie between this film, the gay community and cult film legend, look no further than the facts that Paramount re-released the film within months as a Rocky Horror-esque cult event, and the current special edition DVD contains commentary by John "Pink Flamingos" Waters. Plus, you know, all the drag queens seen in Showgirls, another gay-preserved camp classic.

The condolences of every person at Pepsi-Cola are with you.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Ugly, Ugly Adventures of Mark Twain

Dominos Pizza is running another ad campaign of terror using claymation: instead of crudely embracing the form they attack innocence with bilious Family Guy levels of market tested irony and have Mom murder the corporate mascot in the kitchen. He's a rappin' claymation dude with shades - here you are rewarded with your superior taste with, the marketing department is congratulating themselves on their own cleverness. As products like Skittles, Burger King and this one continue using detached post-advertising hipsterisms like "The Burger King" and acoustic folk songs about candy, it becomes more apparent than ever we need an enlightenment period of sincerity and disciplined craft.

I was reminded of this because a man named Will Vinton made the last earnest attempt to create a corporate mascot for Dominoes in the form of The Noid - an eflin man in a red bunny suit who wanted to kill your pizza and resembled an elderly buck toothed dwarf. Now they spit on his grave with extreme ironic prejudice.

The ads caught on for a while, though The Noid is really hideously unappealing from a design standpoint. I'm willing to bet TV viewers were merely taken by the application of stop-motion, or as it's trademarked in The Adventures of Mark Twain, Claymation(R).

Will Vinton's Claymation(R) also created the beloved 80s corporate shills, The California Raisins. In other words, his trademark is creating lumpy people with disproportionately huge heads, a disturbing amount of facial details, and in The Adventures of Mark Twain's case the inability to move ones legs.

For a far more appealing application of such animation, even the genteel Rankin-Bass productions knew how they'd have the most leeway animating three-dimensional figures if their designs were fun and appealing and simple, a la Jay Ward:

There are tons of poses and varied characters in these old specials, especially Year Without a Santa Claus. No wonder the greatest stop-motion film ever, The Nightmare Before Christmas uses Tim Burton's Rankin-Bass inspired designs so sprightly.

Vinton's lumpy pseudo realistic design eye parallels the descent of 2D animation in the quasi-realistic gutter.

The burden of the screenplay or script on animation rather than storyboard is terrible. Mark Twain has dialogue incessantly getting in the way of the wraparound meta-story: Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher join the "real" Mark Twain on a wabulous, zabulous, funtabulous hot air balloon-ship ride into Halley's Comet to burn to a crisp!! Yay!!!

Every now and then the kids step into a story room or get bored and Mark Twain shows up to tell a story, and the narration is mostly all there is. The problem with celebrating a writer's work in the only moving visual medium more visual than movies is it's not best suited to Mark Twain's rote dramatizations of "The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County" with it's potato-faced Klasky-Csupo looking monstrosities mumbling their lines with wrinkly mouths and waving their giant monkey hands around.

The "Diaries of Adam and Eve" segments dilutes Twain's original caustic satire of the sexes into a Sunday morning bible programming for kids. Those clay figures and puppets also waddled rather than walked and rarely lifted their arms above shoulder length. Good thing the narration straight from Twain makes it all hang together...or so Vinton thinks. A folksy saying here, a bit of profundity there.

One of the strangest features of American animation's decline is the discovery that even the cheap and hurried cartoons of yesteryear contain pleasant idiosyncratic surprises. Older limited animation can actually be fun and unique rather than incompetent, such as Clutch Cargo (bizarre,) Speed Racer (hyper-stylized,) or Roger Ramjet, as John K illustrates.

When bad 80s animation was at its most competent and attempted deliberate ugliness, rather than poor attempts at appeal, the results were at least interesting. Heavy Metal Rock N' Rule have some beautifully ugly paintings and layouts, as do the Mordor scenes in the Rankin-Bass animated Tolkien movies.

In the field of stop-motion animation, Will Vinton's silver lining to the formal stodginess of his imagination is found in the dark corners of the imagination, where there is little room for the cutesiness to which he is inclined. The "Mysterious Stranger" segment is the best moment of the film, unforgettable to me as a child, when I briefly glimpsed it at a friend's house and could not identify it for years. Apparently many people had the same experience, as this excerpted clip now has over five million views on YouTube (under another uploading.)

Like Disney, the only cool things CUTE animation studios do are when they decide to be SCARY. I advise saving your time with The Adventures of Mark Twain and simply enjoying the following.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Two Movies About Jekyll and Hyde

The story of Jekyll & Hyde would best be experienced without any prior knowledge whatsoever. This is a feat which, for lack of this writer's education, would be akin not to acknowledging the audience's knowledge that Batman is Bruce Wayne. You know, like Begins did.

The 1920 Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde is one of the first horror movies ever made, alongside the German landmarks of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Golem that same year. As an American production J&H precedes Nosferatu, The Man Who Laughs and Lon Chaney's portrayal of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Charles Laughton's muted intensity was the original horror star role for thespians and the story would be remade on film again in 1931 when Karloff and Lugosi respectfully immortalized Frankenstein and Dracula. Jekyll is neglected as an archetypical monster. What actor doesn't relish the chance to embody a transformation from good to evil? The theatrical production was arrived on the stage of London within a year of the original story's publication and lives as a mainstay of

Granted, Jekyll & Hyde is/are not the icon(s) that Frankie and Drac became but he/they share literary pedigree and they keep making the same movie about him/them even if they don't make money, from Dr Jekyll & Mrs Hyde to Mary Reilly. Who can forget Martin Landau (as Bela Lugosi)'s exclamation in Ed Wood that he's always wanted to play Jekyll & Hyde, when Ed is in fact pitching him a story of transvestism? Duality and flip-sides are basic building blocks of melodrama. The Jungian thing, sir. Okay, and the added benefit of public domain. JEKYLL. HYDE. THIS TIME THEY'RE COPS.

Robert Louis Stevenson's original 1886 novella had the benefit of creating the damn story and leaving the revelation that Jekyll-is-Hyde until the final chapters. The main characters are Jekyll's friends, who wonder about his increasingly paranoid isolation and the mysterious provision in his will for one Mr Edward Hyde - who has recently appeared in town and made a name for himself as a total scoundrel. What could the good and respectable Dr Jekyll have to do with such a man....?

Well, we all know that by now. So it comes as little surprise that the major adaptations of the story to film are exercises in creative rearrangement. Stevenson's accounts of Hyde are chilling primarily in the continual observations from various characters that to merely see the face of Hyde is to view the face of absolute wickedness - that his cruelty is so manifest in his person it contorts his very features. This goes a long way in conveying Hyde's evil, since Stevenson is conspicuously chaste in describing Hyde's deeds. There's an incident of child abuse early on, and then he punches some woman on the street towards the very end...was this as much sin as Victorian-era Stevenson was comfortable describing?

Given that the theme of repression is paramount, Hyde's uninhibited contrasts to Jekyll deserve far more fleshing out. The films' most interesting creative choices reside there and in Hyde's appearance.

In 1920, John Barrymore essentially plays Hyde as Nosferatu - elongated putty chin and nose (and head, revealed eventually) - before there was one. He creeps and slinks like a vampire and his M.O. is made manifest in the plotline of a beautiful Italian (read: exotic and slatternly) dance hall girl. Prior to Jekyll's invention, his friends take him out to the 1880s version of Hooters to see a little uncovered knee action, where he meets the lovely girl and his inhibition prevents him from getting his freak on. As Hyde he pursues her, while alter-ego Jekyll placates his lovely fiance.

This makes such illustrative dramatic sense that Spencer Tracey does the same thing in 1941, only without the fright makeup. According to IMDB trivia Tracey suggested to producers a realistic take on the story, wherein Jekyll would be driven to Hyde-like activities through drugs and alcohol in the parts of London where he'd be anonymous. Tracey wound up still drinking the magic potion, but not without the decision to wear little-to-no-makeup at all, to the films' detriment. It's really hard to believe no one can tell them apart; Jekyll's face is only a little contorted, his eyes only a little wilder, some fake choppers in his puss...

Lana Turner basically has nothing to do in that version as Jekyll's "good girl" fiance, while Ingrid Bergman gets to deal with Hyde. Those are actually the best scenes in the film, since Tracey's Hyde is principally after destroying her psychologically before the physical ravishing. Being a talkie goes a long way in articulating Jekyll's desires, though never quite as well Stevenson did. There is also the annoying addition of a priest, whose simple pronouncements about good and evil are a lazy shorthand for setting up Jekyll's central conflict. Victor Fleming's direction lends a nice rhythm to the proceedings, especially the laboratory montages.

The romantic element, entirely absent from the novella, remains with us in J&H's legacy through Jerry Lewis' The Nutty Professor and its imitators, including the Eddie Murphy remake - the idea of a nerd who invents a potion for transformation in a ladies' man is a gentler version of the story, including the novella's third act twist wherein the transformations start occurring uncontrollably.

I have a feeling the 1931 version is the happy middle in all this, for the balance of a frightful lustful Hyde and tortured Jekyll. Neither of its filmic bookends elaborate the doctor's original mission, to distill not only the evil in himself but the good - an alchemic allegory for adaptation. Mary Reilly may even be the version that best captures a sense of mystery, the main character being one of his unwitting house servants.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Bangkok Plagiarist

Some hep cat at the Lionsgate marketing department must have Netflixed The City of Violence, the best action movie of the last 5 years...

They're also the UK distributors for Righteous Kill...coincidence? Or did a bunch of people suddenly get the same idea to make movie posters a little bit interesting for once, and in the same way?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

More Croc Crap

I didn't mean to see two killer croc movies in a row, honest. There's a universal unconscious interconnectedness to these things, like when you're thinking about a plate of shrimp and someone says "plate" or "shrimp"....

There was half an evening to kill in Cleveland, the day after the Devo fan convention. No wheels, stuck at Motel 6. Ordered a pizza, turned on the Spectravision and vegged the old fashioned way; with a film destined to be viewed on pay cable by motel denizens nearly ten years later - Lake Placid.

Having not given this flick a second thought since deciding not to see it back in 1999, I was immediately struck by the sheer volume of sarcasm that used to pervade 1990s movies. Scream certainly put gratuitous snarkiness into overdrive for horror flicks, and the killer animal subgenre was no exception. I mean, Bats probably had loathsome one-dimensional sarcasm robots as stars, too.

Placid's cast is solidly A-minus, making the glibness all the more unbearable than if hamfistedly conveyed by nobodies. Here, they're just good enough to be awful. Bridget Fonda is a beautiful lady scientist from New York who goes to investigate the titular lake and hates the local hick cops who she has to work with, Bill Pullman and Brendan Gleeson. The latter is actually pretty good since he has to take the bulk of abuse not only from Fonda but Oliver Platt as a completely unconvincing rich eccentric crocodile hunter (before there was a Steve Irwin.)

Every scene with these four is like an unfunny sitcom that never ends. The crocodile scenes...the late great Stan Winston does justice to practical shots of the floating gator on a superficial level but the beast has no personality. He's barely in it; the cast is only intermittently in danger so that they can go ashore out of harm's way and exchange more witlessness. When the third act brings the croc on land, the limitations of and over-reliance upon CGI was another unpleasant 90s flashback. The Rogue CGI gator is significantly better when we see him, and he's got character beyond being a special effect.

Steve Miner directed this thing, he of Friday the 13th parts 2 & 3 and House. I always forget he was busy directing post-Scream irony-horror during the 90s. Recently he directed the abominable direct-to-video remake of Day of the Dead, making House his artistic peak if only by sheer volume of rubber monsters.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

The Return of the Living Dead: Where Are They Now?

Almost all of them were at the fabulous New Beverly last night!! And I almost missed it!!

I got lucky. I knew the film was screening that night (yesterday) and tonight. The plans were set for tonight, but the theater is on my way home. Why not stop on a whim and ask if anyone from the film came to the screening? Such things are known to happen unexpectedly.

Holy crap did I hit the jackpot. The usherette said there was the director (Dan O'Bannon!!!) and "a lot" of the cast and she wasn't kidding. I took my seat right about halfway through and when the lights came up I couldn't believe the lineup. There probably hasn't been as massive a gather of this film's cast and crew, ever!

Here they are as they sat onstage, from stage right to left:

Special Effects Man Tony Gardner!

Seen here playing himself in Seed of Chucky, Tony Gardner came "straight out of kindergarden" (-James Karen) as a last-minute replacement to create the half-dog and half-corpse zombies in a matter of weeks! He shared a story about tense dealings with one of the film's British producers who hated his guts - which only motivated him to blow everyone away on no budget and no time.

I kind of wanted to ask him about the half-corpse female zombie's speaking scene, and if they'd considered her lack of LIPS to be a consideration in the ability to form words...but hey. I never noticed it until people started annoying me with their clever observation. A puppet with articulate lips is tough.

Director-Writer Dan O'Bannon!

The man!! Seemingly well recovered from recent health problems, sporting his usual Kentucky fried beard and in good spirits. There was some new information to be heard, despite Dan's self-admittedly waning memory of the production.

Like the original ending! Glimpsed here in this YouTube upload of the assembly/rough cut...

I'd only seen this recently (tip o' the hat to "CTM1978") and O'Bannon clarified that the final "rebirth" ending which recycles earlier shots from the film AND montages dialogue from previous scenes during the credits was in fact the producers doing.

My best guess for the change, besides gratuitous producer fuckery, is that it actually kind of puts a more whimsical spin on the story's apocalyptic ending. That, or O'Bannon's setup for a sequel wasn't obvious enough, and they felt they should actually show corpses coming out of the ground again...the same corpse.

The long-rumoured guide to screenwriting is 80-90% complete, but has been suspended since there are no takers in the publishing world...idiots, this guy wrote fucking Alien. You don't think a screenwriting book "from the writer of Alien and Total Recall" would sell? Return has one of the greatest screenplayers ever written for a horror movie. Sad that this book's future isn't more solid.

Finally, a Q + A question from the audience confirmed something I'd long suspected - Matthew Clifford's music score (which does not include the main "Trioxin Theme" written by Francis Haines,) were written separately from the film as a series of cues and inserted creatively by the film's sound editor. As O'Bannon noted, he did a perfect job. You'd never know!

He left immediately afterwards but I was able to tell him ROTLD changed my life, and he just laughed...

Production Designer Bill Stout!

A way cool dude who participated with O'Bannon on the mini-docs and commentary track of the original MGM DVD release, as well as the new one. Stout's credits include Conan the Barbarian, from which he culled an anecdote about the nature of dealing with producers: director John Milius asked him one day to storyboard a sequence in which during the raid of a village, a pillager on horseback would grab a baby, impale it on his spear and then rip it off.

"My god!" sez Stout. "Dino De Laurentiis (producer) will never let us get away with that!"

"Right" sez Milius. "He'll order it be removed, and will feel he's contributed to the project."

This is exactly what John Kricfalusi said Spumco used to do when dealing with Nickelodeon vis-a-vis Ren & Stimpy! Apparently it works!

O'Bannon took a moment to note that nearly everything in the film is artificial, an amazing fact when looking at all the little intricate details of the mortuary where much of the action takes place - damned if that set doesn't come off as the real thing.

With some prompting from O'Bannon, Stout recalled the creation of the graveyard set resulted from the fact there wasn't a SINGLE GRAVEYARD in LA that contained forestation and/or big gravestones. That very Southern style is what they needed, so they made do in an unused, sandy vineyard. Boy, did they. You have to see for yourself how special these sets are.

They're all the more amazing for the fact the three main locations of the film - graveyard, mortuary and medical supply warehouse - are all located right beside each other in the story. In actuality, only the exterior and interior of the warehouse even existed prior to filming.

James Karen - "Frank"!

The mic passed to the mellifluous James Karen next, he of many many many film and TV credits over the years. Well dressed and booming with theatricality, Karen had a jibe for every slow moment during the night and showed a ton of love for the film's following and everyone he worked with...not sure what else to say! Unfortunately he left right away after the Q+A.

Brian Peck - "Scuz"!

Introducing himself as the ROTLD cast member who never gets recognized, Peck does indeed look nothing like Scuz the punk. He is however one of ROTLD's most ardent cult supporters, having participated in the last DVD and helping assemble reunions for various horror-cons. Outside the theater he was good enough to chat with me about my favorite Scuz moment, in which he pulls a switchblade on Clu Gulager...except it WASN'T a switchblade! It was a stiletto knife, in which the blade shoots straight up rather than swinging out... O'Bannon was adament about this with the prop department! God, the attention to detail!!

Peck noted during Q+A that he still has his Scuz costume, thanks to James Karen advising him to get away with as much prop and costumage as possible, and that were he to wear those threads today, they would resemble a tank top. He also kept some gravestones and the "Weird Tales" comic book Scuz reads in the backseat of Suicide's car.

Beverly Randolph - "Tina"!

Another longtime supporter of the ROTLD fandom on DVD and at conventions. Ms. Randolph's voice IS Tina's - cute and squeaky clean high pitched squeaks - and she's barely aged a day. Her grandmother and son were actually in attendance and she had to cover their eyes during the scary bits. She also squeak-freaked out when the language got salty and left mid-Q + A due to her parking valet. Oh well. Her nugget of the evening was prior to filming, she had gone on a date with her co-star and fictive boyfriend, at O'Bannon's request, despite the inability of O'Bannon or that co-star to remember and corroborate the unorthodox rehearsal method.

And that co-star was of course:

Thom Matthews - "Freddie"!

(on the left)

Pretty much looks like an older, buffer (according to IMDB he has a black belt and owns a construction company) version of our favorite unlucky stockroom clerk. I'm sad to say, there seemed something a bit distant about him. No real content during the Q + A, but he seemed happy to talk to fans a bit afterwards, most of whom seemed to enjoy him more from his starring role Friday the 13th Part 6: Jason Lives....Were I still a shameless nerd asshole I'd have asked him about Alien From LA....good thing I've acquired shame.

O'Bannon commented that he was always best on the first take, and so was excused from the weeks' rehearsals prior to filming! You can tell in the film; there's something undeniably spontaneous about Freddie's wild-eyed panic.

Jewel Shepard - "Casey!"

Like Beverly Randolph, Jewel also looks great. Unfortunately she can't remember "anything" because she was "high the entire time." She also ditched the Q + A early...ah, well.

You can see her naked at

Don Calfa - "Ernie"!

Despite not having much to say during Q + A, I caught him on the walk out of the theater to ask my own burning question; whether or not he'd known of his character's Nazi connection. Apparently he was informed during filming and actually did some research, hence not only the sliver of German he lets slip during one scene but his actual gun-drawing stance. Now that's craft.

You can see him naked at NO! You can see his ROTLD love! Including his ideas for a Return of the Living Dead comic book sequel!!

There was Kenny Myers, another FX man, didn't say anything...which brings me to:

Clu Gulager - "Burt"!

The man of the hour at the New Beverly, Clu has actually been host of his own Clu Gulager film festival this week. He's got a big pomp, an Air Force jacket and a lot of good cheer. Being a well-respected artisan of acting, he shared a couple of particularly insightful points about ROTLD.

When he first read O'Bannon's script, he realized this was not going to be just any old horror movie.

After finishing the film, he knew two things were for certain in this world: O'Bannon is a talent on the level of Preston Sturges or Howard Hawks, and The Return of the Living Dead is a masterpiece.

He claims he has only been in two masterpieces, ever - this and The Last Picture Show. How's that for praise?

See you there tonight...