Thursday, December 20, 2012

...And that's a Wrap...on 2012.

I thought about reviewing this year for the blog as the last post of the holidays...

And then I thought: The less said, the better.

Here's to seeing you and more pop culture shenanigans in 2013. Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

"What's a Joint Like This Doing on a Girl Like You?"

Another round of marital infidelity as I continue my Dino-fication while taking in Billy Wilder's 1964 effort, Kiss Me, Stupid.

The sequel happened in Intercourse, Pennsylvania...
Generally left out of the majors of Wilder's considerable canon (Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, Some Like It Hot, among many other greats), Kiss Me Stupid was condemned by the Catholic Legion of decency and was largely considered vulgar by reviewers.  Time, however, has done its usual work at toning down what might have ruffled feathers in 1964.  To me, it stood up well, and was an enjoyable, if farcical, concocted comedy of errors.

In the film, a small town duo of songwriters, Orville Spooner (Ray Walston) and Barney Millsap (Cliff Osmond), luck into their first contact with a big star when Vegas sensation, Dino (Dean Martin) rolls through their town on his way to Los Angeles. Barney, who runs the filling station, sabotages Dino's car to keep him around while they pitch the singer their horde of near-miss songs. Orville, an insanely jealous husband, fears having his wife anywhere near the famous lothario, so Barney cooks up a plan to get Zelda (Felicia Farr) out of the house and substitute another woman for her, the pretty barmaid, Polly the Pistol (Kim Novak). Despite his best efforts, Orville barely gets his wife out the door before Polly turns up. Of course, hijinks have already ensued from the word go, but at this point they're merely knocked up another dozen notches as Polly ends up falling for Orville rather than Dino, and Zelda ends up passed out in Polly's trailer behind the roadhouse.

Walston's in Nevada after leaving Roswell...but before moving in with Bill Bixby...(look it up)
At this point, I don't want to give too much more away though I've already hinted at the problems the public had with it above. It's sort of hilarious to me that five years before, the public and critics had far less trouble with a pair of musicians going in drag to chase girls...and escape the Some Like it Hot. Naturally, fifty years and movies like Indecent Proposal, have made the elements of Kiss Me, Stupid ludicrously tame. In fact, I'll go so far as to say that this movie does a fine job of making marital infidelity quite touching considering the scenario involved.

Wilder is a master, and not just because film history books tell us so. The Austrian-born filmmaker first escaped to France as the Nazis came to power to start making pictures before continuing on to Hollywood. His films have both the meticulous feeling of a powerful hand in charge while still managing to be light and often wildly inventive (I recommend reading about some of the crazier things he wanted to do with Sunset Boulevard, a film that still ended up pretty damned inventive with what he did do with it). And while this one lacks some of the flair and zany fun of a Some Like it Hot, it's still firmly in the master's hands.

Dino's commentary on chianti or lady's footwear?
Ray Walston does a wonderful, if occasionally over-the-top job as Orville. He's a little too archetypal jealous husband, constantly chasing away anything with a Y chromosome, but is still entertaining to watch as he's able to pivot emotional direction on a dime. Felicia Farr as Zelda is very obviously desirable both in terms of looks and personality, but gets a little less of a chance to shine as character in comparison to Kim Novak as Polly. Polly, like Orville, is again a touch too archetypal in the "hooker with a heart of gold vein," but still managed to tug at a few heart strings as the story progressed. The biggest surprise is Dino, who in many respects is presented as playing himself, and it's none too flattering. The film opens with him charming a crowd with song and jokes from the stage, but once in Orville's house he's all "Roman Hands and Russian Fingers" as the saying goes. He comes off as a first class heel, but at least he does it well.

Sexier to Billy: being on set with Kim Novak or writing with Raymond Chandler?
Kiss Me, Stupid may not be the one you choose to show if only allowed to present one Billy Wilder vehicle, but I admit to having a soft spot for interesting if lesser-known works. After all, I'd probably show The Wild Bunch if I could only show one Peckinpah, but I savor the flawed and highly personal Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid on a more personal level.  As I mentioned in my review of Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed?, I do love the movie world created especially well in older movies, and while Kiss Me, Stupid delivers on that, it's also nice that it has just the right amount of real world honesty.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A New Moon in Nineteen Seventy Nine.

My earliest foray into earning cash was in music stores. Music stores are...perhaps were...a great place to expand one's cultural horizons as all the employees tend to be deep into one type of music or another.  Some stuff they agree on, much they do not. And eventually you find your place in the spectrum.

More or less exactly how I looked in 1995 at my store in Pontiac, MI.
It also does a fine job embittering you to how generally awful and limited the taste of the general public is.  And I don't say that because they didn't like specifically what I liked.  No, they didn't tend to see eye-to-eye with any of my fellow employees on much of anything, and not because we were all elitist (though some definitely were). We all had our guilty pleasures, but the public tended toward the bland chart toppers, the same greatest hits collections,  and whatever was passing for bad dance music at the time.

In any event, at various times, I learned to try it all and give anything a chance if only to see where it fit in. I love not only knowing who influenced the artists I liked, but also who they influenced. Nothing's created in a vacuum, so I like to find the threads in the tapestry. But there are ends I stop short of that usually start with the non-hyperbolic modifier "deep."

Symphonic or Prog rock tends to fall on the "deep" end of the rock spectrum: large, expansive, heavily layered, experimental walls of sound that can frequently be impenetrable.  The cover art usually depicts an otherworldly place that only this music could be the soundtrack to. And like the sci-fi/fantasy worlds it seems to depict, it's usually only there for those who really care to plumb the depths. It's usually not catchy. It's not hooky. It's a twenty minute odyssey that will in no way break the radio play charts. And just because it's symphonic doesn't mean it's melodic.

"On your left you can see Detroit, Michigan...and on your left Fresno..."
There are some exceptions of course, but if you came at a prog fan with only Pink Floyd, The Moody Blues or the couple of pop hits that Yes cranked out, you'd only receive the smug derisive chuckling that the initiate reserves for the outsider.  All the same, I'm not generally a fan of the stuff. Seeking to expand the sound of rock and add weight to it isn't a terrible goal, but considering rock's roots, it was perhaps a bit wrongheaded. Addition and expansion eventually become bloat and pretension, which in this case led to the stripped down distorted roar of punk.

Having said all that, I took a wild stab at a prog album from Japan: 1979's Shingetsu by the band of the same name. Shingetsu, which means "new moon," lasted a mere six years and only produced this one work, but what they did do has been heralded an exalted enough to continue to be dispersed in this modern age. I can't say that I disagree.

Seems like a good place to reaffirm my love for a well done "Alice" tribute
Much of my exposure to Japanese music has fallen into one of three categories: the sugary overload of J-pop, the wild experimentation of the electronic, and the melodic melancholy of the more traditional or musical scores.   Shingetsu doesn't fall into any of those three categories. Though it has moments that have a more pop feel than a fair amount of prog, it certainly doesn't have much of the trite Top 40 Tokyo feel. Though it is certainly experimental with the multiple layers of sound, it's doesn't have some of the rabbit punches of abrasiveness I've come to expect. And while it does have enough of the mood of some of the more traditional stuff, it would be more like the soundtrack to a late 70's animé version of Heavy Metal.

Ok...with just a smidge of Goblin mixed in there at varying points.

Lead vocalist Makoto Kitayama has a gentle, emotional voice with some fine acrobatics to match the highs and lows of the tunes. The band is a sharp set of musicians who are more than capable of spinning a pretty good sound web.  Each song usually features a pretty steady rise and fall in arrangement and tempo making for miniature musical journeys in the framework of the whole.  I can't comment as to the quality of the lyrics as I'm not as well versed in Japanese as I'd like to be. It could be all about Yōkai playing poker while eating pickles atop Mount Fuji while the Lord of the Rings is re-enacted in the various Japanese theater styles below. I don't think it is, but I have just thought of a pretty good theme for my next concept album.

"+2 Vocal abilities...+1 Charisma points...and +4 Snappy Dresser..."
I'll confess that though I'll occasionally still give prog a chance, it rarely talks me into a second listen, either because it's simply too dense for me to get into, too ethereal to make much of an impression, or simply too pretentious a bloated mess for me to care about. Shingetsu, however, has managed to keep me quite well enchanted for the half-dozen spins I've given it thus far. I shall look forward to spinning it again.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

"You Never Really Get to Know a Person Until They Put Their Clothes On."

In the last decade or so, the obsession with "reality" has infiltrated everything, and has made me all the more conscious of why everyone in the world should now be required to take a media studies class.  After all, the documentary has rarely been as popular on a mass scale, and yet, one has to realize that even a Ken Burns' ten hour series on PBS still can't show every facet of any subject.  And because there's a filmmaker, there's a point of view, and an opinion on the subject. "Reality"shows have come a long way since the obviously contrived excuse to put a bunch or strangers together and see what happens. Now we watch with baited breath, not only for some person that does some dangerous job in some remote region, but we'll watch a bunch of guys buy storage lockers.  I had an uncle who did that...I never found it that fascinating, though, I'll admit that the thought of a surprise inside was alluring.

Even in movies that bring the modern mythos of superheroes to the big screen is still often tethered to reality.  Rather than exist in a sort of alternate world where super-powers are just the norm, we've tried to ground them in the same world we live in.  It's a fool's errand. As comedian Pete Holmes so expertly put it when an audience member decried the unrealistic CGI of the Hulk as being fake, "The Hulk is fake, buddy."

It's where the whole idea of a "movie world" comes in. It's why we love Quentin Tarantino. His movies have increasingly ceased to exist in the world we occupy and have more and more showed that this would be the world QT would create were he God. And it's why I find myself running back to older films: you know it's a set, you know it's too elegant and glamourous, you know everyone's not that quippy, and coincidences just don't happen like that...and those are all the reasons you love it.

This poster fails to feature the requisite innuendo of the Matt Helm Poster Act....
1963's Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? allowed me to slip right into that movie world of glamorous people in an impossible situation, a heightened reality. Also, I wouldn't have thought I'd be able to segue a review of a Dean Martin vehicle with Russ Meyer, but I'll have to get back to that.

The movie tells the story of Jason Steel (Dean Martin), a TV actor who plays a doctor who is much beloved to the ladies, but in Jason's real life, he's getting tired of his job and cold feet about his impending nuptials to girlfriend Melissa (Elizabeth Montgomery) because of his poker buddies' varying shaky relationships with their own wives. Now here's where the contrived part comes in: Because Jason seems so much the perfect man, his friends' wives begin setting up rendez-vous with him to help them with their marital problems, which usually leads to their trying to get cozy with him. Only problem is they're all lovely ladies, and it's making it even harder for Jason to commit to his own relationship.  Meanwhile, Melissa too is tiring of Jason's hot then cold routine, while her friend Stella (Carol Burnett) strives to keep them on their way to the altar.

Here you go, ladies: Mr. Right in his jammies.
Naturally, all this leads to Dino slowly cracking up as he has to keep shuffling all these dames around to keep from getting into trouble with their husbands, his friends. Dean's perfectly cast here. His charm and easy-going attitude make it easy to understand why the ladies love him, although his purposely stiff demeanor in the opening scenes on the set of his show had me laughing from the get go. It was 60's TV acting par excellence. But the situation is, of course, patently absurd, but that's exactly what makes it fun. You never doubt why Dino would be both driven crazy by, and yet totally desire to keep playing the field in the spot he's in. It's not reality. I've never seen any extramarital affairs go like this, but that's exactly the fun of it.

Director Daniel Mann keeps the movie at a brisk, but not labored clip, while orchestrating some great comic sequences.  Elizabeth Montgomery was only a year away from becoming "Samantha Stevens" of Bewitched fame, and she's every part the desirable girlfriend that would make the perfect wife. Dino's buddies' wives are played by a fun group of actress and his buddies by a solid crew of familiar character actors. But the show is nearly completely stolen by Carol Burnett in her debut film performance. She is an absolute joy to watch as the oversexed but gawky Stella...which oddly enough brings me back to my Russ Meyer point from earlier.

I'm not sure what Russ saw in her....
Though the movie had several sequences that had me roaring, there's a late scene in a Mexican nightclub that made the whole movie worth while.  Dino and the girls arrive for a celebration when who should they find entertaining the bars patrons but an oddly uncredited burlesque legend, Tura Satana. Tura actually played a showgirl in two of director Daniel Mann's movies (the other being Our Man Flint!  I managed to tie in that as well!), but she's perhaps best known for playing the busty and booted, go-go dancing killer, Varla, from Russ Meyer's immortal Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!  In any event, after her show, Jason has an argument with Melissa and storms out on her and Stella, which leads to the most uproarious segment in the movie as Stella ends up performing her own striptease to pay off the bill!

I only wish I had been on a set that was this fun.
Peeking about the internet, I've seen some reference to the film's "misogyny." Now while it's true that it seems like every woman in the film is a crazy shrew, save Melissa, in the opening minutes of the story, eventually, according to Jason's speech to his therapist friend, they're the most desirable women in the world. The point of the story seems to be that one has to appreciate their spouse and not let their relationship dwindle into the constant fight/ignore territory where the men are all selfish jerks and the women shrieking shrews. And as I mentioned before, this movie obviously represents no reality that I or anyone else has ever lived in.  I don't even have to offer the "it was a different time" defense on this one (ok, maybe a little for some of the somewhat racist moments). Instead, I just wonder whether anyone who honestly thinks that this movie is misogynist enough to comment on it actually enjoys life at all when viewing it through that jaded lens.

Who's Been Sleeping in My Bed? is simply a delight, which left me with a smile on my face from the time I finished watching it until it was time for me to climb between my own sheets wishing I had some of Dino's problems!

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Only Death and Diamonds are Forever

This week saw a return to the superspy genre as I completed yet another of Ian Fleming's original novels on the eternal James Bond. (And no, sadly, I still haven't managed to catch Skyfall.)  This time it was the fourth Bond outing, Diamonds Are Forever (1956).

Learning Courtesy and Etiquette via classic paperback art.
Initially I was hoping to write this review after I'd had a chance to take in the 1971 film again, but that didn't quite work out. Despite being the final canon Bond film to feature Connery in the role (He would of course play Bond once more in Never Say Never Again (1983), the film made during the Thunderball legal loophole over ownership.), Diamonds is generally considered to be the least of the Connery Bond's, and ranks fairly low on most Bond aficionados hierarchies.  It certainly didn't make much of an impression on me as it's one of only a small handful of Bond films that I've only seen once. However, whatever its flaws, it was able to resuscitate the series after flagging box office returns following the smash success of Thunderball (1965).

See how this is all oddly connected?  No?  The major difference between the book and the movie is the book features a pair of gangsters, the Spang brothers as its villains, whereas the movie would see the return of Bond's arch-nemesis Ernst Blofeld. Blofeld wouldn't appear in print until five books and five years later in ninth Bond novel Thunderball.  But then that's the danger in adapting the books into movies, or seeing the movies/reading the books out of order: continuity problems. Yes?

Let's continue.  Book only.

Sorry Sean...
A few weeks back I reviewed one of Fleming's non-Bond books, The Diamond Smugglers, and wouldn't you know that elements of that book would appear in Diamonds Are Forever...or rather, the reverse.  In my head, I had worked it out that he'd written the non-fiction book first and used it as research for the Bond novel.  The only problem is that the fiction beat the fact to the newsstand by a year. More's the pity, as in retrospect, the Bond novel makes the research book seem even more dry by comparison.
"Excuse Mr. Fleming...could we see what's in that case?"
The plot sees M. assigning Bond to help stop diamond trafficking from Africa, putting him undercover as a low-level hood looking to act as smuggler to get out of England.  His contact is a beautiful but icy girl named Tiffany Case.  Once in America, Bond tries to work his way further into the criminal underworld when he runs into his old pal, Felix Leiter.  Leiter, severely injured during Live and Let Die (the book), now works for the Pinkerton detectives. The two men foil a fixed horse race, and Bond gets sent on to the Spang brothers' headquarters in Las Vegas. I wouldn't want to ruin the rest, but I will say that casinos, a ghost town, and an antique steam engine figure into Bond's future from here.

Of those I've read, this was certainly the most rapidly paced of the Bond novels, which was both a good and bad thing. Dr. No, for instance, did a pretty good job of balancing movement and stillness...but it also came two books after this one (there's that continuity thing again.)  Diamonds chugs along pretty swiftly until a brief dip just before the finale. Fleming still has a tendency to over-describe superfluous details from time to time, but never enough to mar the enjoyment. Bond's love affair is well intertwined into the plot outside of his usual bed 'em and bolt routine. There's a whole bunch of colorful henchmen and hoodlums of the movie gangster variety.

The book did have the good taste to spare us Charles Gray in did Rocky Horror ironically.
In fact, I'd say the books sole weakness is that it doesn't have a Blofeld. Not that it specifically needed the arch-villain himself, merely that we're not given nearly as good a characterization of the Spang brothers as Dr. No, or Mr. Big, or Goldfinger. They're not totally lifeless, there's just a little less enthusiasm for Bond's going after them as compared to his toppling his more usual big time super-villains. Still and all the other thugs he contends with are at least entertaining enough that it's not terribly noticeable as the story goes.

In all, I would say that Diamonds Are Forever was yet another enjoyable and quick-paced romp in the literary superspy world, a fine getaway for a weekend read.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Savior of the Universe...

Like most of my reviews, this one comes well after the release date.  But if you think about some of the movies I've been reviewing, I'm decades late.  And let's not ponder just how I'd zip back to a time before my birth to have caught some of them on opening night.  Or ponder it. Heck, I'm game.

I finally got my hands on the first volume of IDW's new reproduction of Alex Raymond's Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim.  And whoa nelly, it's a beautiful book that was well worth waiting for. Over the years, I've picked up and/or flipped through a number of the reprints of Raymond's seminal space hero only to be let down by one facet of them or another. Now, while we'd all love to see someone track down all the original b&w artwork penned by Raymond for the series, until I'm a bazillionaire who can pull of such a feat, this might be one of the better collections we're going to get.

Alex Raymond (1909-1956) is legendary in the field of comics, not merely for creating Flash (who was originally meant to be competition for the popular Buck Rogers strip) but for creating an elegant, thinly lined realistic style of cartooning. Tragically, his life was cut short in an automobile accident with fellow comic artist Stan Drake (Drake survived.). His professional life and this accident were the intense focus of Dave Sim's otherwise satirical comic Glamourpuss.  Flash, however, continues to thrive and survive and Raymond's other creation, Rip Kirby, outlived its creator by another 40 years.

The introduction does a wonderful job of introducing new readers to Raymond and his work. It also attempts to tackle the controversy regarding long time Flash editor and contributor, Don Moore.  Moore took over writing Flash Gordon after Raymond left the strip to enlist for World War II, but it's often been argued whether he was writing Flash while Raymond drew it, writing additional material, or merely editing Raymond's work. The answer will likely continue to be unknown, but at least that Moore was definitely a part of the Flash and Jungle Jim families receives acknowledgement.

As to the content itself, Flash gets off to a bit of both an abrupt and slightly rough start. Anyone familiar with Raymond's prowess might be surprised just how clunky the earliest of both strips kick off, then how simplistic they become before finally settling into all the flowing line work. I've gone over a number of strip collections and seen the work grow over many years. Raymond, however, moves by leaps and bounds in developing his style...then takes a few steps back...then leaps forward again. If you wanna see an artist grow, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than this book.  The writing too takes a fair bit of time to finally find its legs, but there's never a dull moment as the story rushes headlong forward from the first strip. The only strange part is the weird obsession with characters wanting to marry one another, but you'll have to read them to find out.

I was surprised that the book also featured a warning concerning the racial stereotyping featured in the stories. I'm going to have to say that Jungle Jim, with it's jungle natives and treacherous local guides is far more likely to ruffle feathers.  It certainly doesn't go out of it's way to be offensive like many other works of the time, but it's still offensive. In Flash, on the other hand, it's always surprised me that Ming the Merciless managed to reach a far more neutral place despite his obvious "Yellow Peril" roots. He and his men start as an almost caricature of Sax Rohmer's Fu Manchu. I suppose his escape from stereotype hell has something to do with his being from another planet, and that other than the occasional outfit, there's nothing terribly Asian about him.  In any event, you've been warned.

The book's a good 16" x 12", which might not quite match the newspapers of the day, it's quite generous for a polo-playing space jockey that's nearly eighty years old now. While there's clearly limitations in the source material from one strip to the next, the line work is generally clear and detailed. The colors are well-reproduced, (but...ok, back to my dream project up there...I'd love to see a side by side of the b&w originals paired with the colored version that went to print), but occasionally mask some of the inking beneath. While a few strips looked like they'd had a good washing out, most are probably as crisp if not far crisper than when they saw print in the 1930's. In all, it's a most happy edition to my shelves and a font of inspiration.

(Note: This reproduction's not from this wonderfully printed book...but is hilarious nonetheless.)

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Al cinema!

Subtlety, thy name is "giallo"...
For this review, I felt the need to return to both my and the internet's roots with some cinematic esoterica. Like so many of my fellow cinephiles, I too would roam from video store to video store collecting both the classics and the dregs of the cinematic experience.  As the internet first began to develop it saw not only the development of community around the motion picture arcane, but rapidly became a valued source for building up a lengthy checklist of sought after obscurity. Naturally, Italian genre films of the 60's and 70's were one of the most well-mined of these, and so it was to Italia that I ventured.

How many killers were merely attempting bad tracheotomies?
I kicked things off with the 1971 giallo The Iguana with the Tongue of Fire (L'inguana dalla lingua di fuoco). The story concerns a series of murders surrounding a Swiss diplomat stationed in Dublin. The rather bizarre title (and what great giallo doesn't have a bizarre title?) refers to the killer's enjoyment of throwing acid in the face of victims before slitting their throats. The Inspector in charge of the case calls in disgraced Inspector Norton with the playful nickname "The Brute", played by Euro-genre movie favorite Luigi Pistilli, to get in close to the family to solve the murders despite the difficulties of diplomatic immunity.

The "Brute"..."Groggy"...was Luigi's character ever called "Friendly"?
Like most giallos, as the bodies pile up, everyone becomes a suspect at some point or another, although usually it's mostly the male cast. However, in Iguana the ladies get a fair few visual clue nods. Blending in intrigue with the diplomat's family and the gloomy settings around Dublin gives the film a Gothic feel; however, like too many gialli, atmosphere and a steadily mounting body count take precedence over a coherent story.  Pistilli, who I always revert back to thinking of as Indio's trusted man Groggy in For a Few Dollars More, plays a good part...but it's especially disconcerting to hear an Irish brogue coming out of this Italian character actor.

This poster should have Spoiler Alert stamped on it...and maybe this caption should too.
For my second feature I switched to the Wild European West with 1972's Fast Hand is Still My Name ( Mi chiamavano 'Requiescat' avevano sbagliato which actually translates to something more like They called me "Rest In Peace"...But They Were Wrong). After the American Civil War, Union soldiers scour the West for a band of terrorizing southern rebels led by Machedo. When soldier Jeff Madison returns to the Union fort, Machedo's men capture him, and after massacring the other soldiers, they torture Madison before shooting holes in his gun hand and leaving him for dead. Madison returns to foil a bank heist pulled by Machedo in order to exact his revenge as they look for their ill-gotten loot.  

Alan Steel stars in Tom of Finland's Zorro!
Fast Hand is a late entry and I wasn't expecting much...and, well, it didn't deliver much. It had the opposite problem of Iguana, in that, it was pretty straight forward but kept throwing in moments and plot elements to make it seem more complex.  William Berger, who is a particular favorite spaghetti staple of mine, lapses well into Klaus Kinski level histrionics as Machedo. Alan Steel, far better known for playing in a number of Hercules films (including my favorite, Hercules Versus The Moon Men), makes for one of spaghetti's blandest heroes. Not too mention, he frequently looks like he over did it with the eye make-up. Equally out of place was the movie's oddly moody, jazzy score.

I can't bring myself to mock William Berger...Sorry.
Now, would I recommend either of these movies? Well, that depends. To the general movie-going To those who love the good and the gloriously bad...a bit more.  There's far worse things to waste your time on than this aged genre most of the awful, expensive new trash opening at the cinema each week.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

"First time she ever handles a gun, she gets shot!"

Not affiliated with the Kinsey Report...
Time for another relative quickie.

During the art house movie boon in the 90's, a weird revival came around in the form of Russ Meyer's 1965 trashy epic Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!  Naturally, I took a front row seat for the first showing and was summarily blown out of the theater. Every line was loaded with a hardboiled style of innuendo, as three go-go dancers hunt after the fortune of a crazy old man in the desert.  I still remember my dad chuckling when I told him what I'd seen, and he explained that back when it had originally been released, everyone knew Russ as the "guy who made nudie flicks with the girls with big boobs." (On a side note, I got to meet Meyer a few years later at a midnight screening. Though in his mid-70's at the time, he was slightly drunk and ready to party it up with a bunch of college film nerds.)

Russ Meyer and...say...who's that dapper young film critic on the right?
Over the years, I managed to see all but one of Russ's piece of handiwork...and he indeed made lots of nudies with girls with big boobs.  But what was odd was how much analytic attention, including a fair amount of praise, Russ received from not only mainstream film critics but also feminist critics. Furthermore, Russ had had a wild life having worked as a cameraman in World War II and as one of Hef's photographers for the early days of Playboy before delving into filmmaking. But despite his leanings toward the lurid and titillating (pun fully intended...come on, you can't resist putting that word in a review of Russ somewhere), he quietly bowed out when some full frontal and a heavy heaping of innuendo had to make way for hardcore pornography.

In Russ's catalogue under "nature" photography...
Which brings us to his 1967 effort Common Law Cabin (aka. How Much Loving Does a Normal Couple Need?), which was written by (and, oddly enough, starred) Jack Moran, who'd written Faster Pussycat.  And it is truly an old trashy paperback come to life as multiple couplings amongst a strange disparate group of strangers devolves into violence at a strange backwater resort in the deserts of Arizona. Now, I could take the time to write up a long paragraph trying to give you a better idea of the plotting, but like any salty old paperback, it'd result in a lot of minor random plot twists that led to either sex or death and little else.

The movie's short, falling just shy of a 70 minute runtime. The pacing's a little up and down, making it still feel well around feature length or more. The acting's reasonable (The highlight being Alaina Capri, who excels at being the vampy bitch). The plot, as I mentioned, is fairly absurd, eventually involving stolen diamonds and a runaway millionaire kid. But boy, the dialogue flies fast and funny. It's a colorful and brightly lit version of something you'd expect coming from dark alleyways and flophouses.  I could cite some of it, but let's face it, innuendo lies pretty dead on the page until some buxom raven-haired vamp slices your ears with it.

Not, I repeat, not from a 60's sitcom...
In any event, it's not one of Russ's better efforts, but certainly a must for aficionados of Meyer's work. It's got the aforementioned oversexed "girls with big boobs," though they keep them pretty much under wraps. It's got the men who are impotent in more ways than one. And after all the fun, it's got the usual moralistic wrap-up, which is something I always found hilarious. Much like the writings of de Sade, who sought depths of depravity well below the lowest of where Meyer plumbs, the stories still manage to reward the virtuous and punish the evildoers.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Many Thanks...

Sorry. Meant to put this up yesterday.

No review for yesterday as it was a holiday here. Unless you want to hear how my meal was? No? I thought not.

We'll return next week with more general culture-based nonsense.  In the meantime, accept this three year old sketch I did of Groucho Marx.
"Well, art is art, isn't it? Still, on the other hand, water is water. And east is east and west is west and if you take cranberries and stew them like apple sause they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does. Now, you tell me what you know." - Groucho Marx, Animal Crackers (1930)

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

"This is a seven shot six-shooter..."

Let's kick this review off with the acknowledgement of the power of cliché.

When I came across a listing for The Villain (aka. Cactus Jack, 1979), I was amazed that there was a comedy western, starring Kirk Douglas and Arnold Schwarzenegger no less, that I had never heard of. The clichéd response is one of two: a)...and now I know why, or b) ...and I wish I hadn't!  Or something like that.

Now, I remember cracking up watching Mel Brooks' glorious Blazing Saddles (1974) with my dad as a kid, and I have often tried to plug the wildly underrated Rustlers' Rhapsody (1985).  (I must state here, however, that as much as I am a fan of Spaghetti Westerns, I'm no fan of the comedy Spaghettis.) In fact, as bad as The Villain flopped, I'll have to admit that I'm amazed Rustlers' ever got made...though director Hugh Wilson was coming off the success of the first Police Academy at the time.  Which also makes this one confusing as famed stuntman turned director, Hal Needham, also made two of the biggest hits of the era with Smokey and the Bandit (1977) and Cannonball Run (1981).   Not that either one of those were plot-heavy masterpieces...but whoa nelly...

This photo looks like the opening to a pretty good joke...
Here's the plot: Charming Jones (the always lovely Ann-Margret) comes into town to pick up her father's money for his mining endeavor from the crooked banker, Avery Jones (Jack Elam), who has hired the outlaw Cactus Jack (Kirk Douglas) to steal the money back, which will garner Avery both the investment and control of the mine; however, Charming's father has hired Handsome Stranger (Schwarzenegger) to escort her safely home. Fair enough, right?

The movie starts off well enough in the town with a series of gags that has Cactus Jack failing to rob the bank from the drunken comedian Foster Brooks, and a hilarious sequence between Handsome Stranger and the telegraph operator played by the stuttering country singer Mel Tillis.  In fact, the first half-hour is pretty consistently good, but once Charming and Handsome hit the trail, the movie becomes one Looney Tunes-esque failed robbery attempt after another.  They start off somewhat fun, but by another twenty minutes in, I was liberally employing the fast forward button.  And it all leads to a wildly unsatisfactory ending...not that I was expecting much by then...but it still managed to evoke a feeling of "What the hell was that?"

Like me, Mel Tillis is not amused...
Now apparently Kirk had regretted passing on two other western comedies: Cat Ballou (1965) which garned Lee Marvin an Oscar, and the aforementioned Blazing Saddles.  Watching the movie, you can tell Kirk got into the work of being funny with zeal, and for a while his commitment keeps it entertaining.  (Sadly, he would follow this up with the equally awkward failure Saturn 3 (1980).) In fact, it's one of those movies where it seems like everyone involved was having a good time, it just came to nothing. Ann-Margret is one note as Charming, as all she's given to do for an hour is to luridly hit on the embarrassed and/or oblivious Handsome Stranger. Likewise, Schwarzenegger, as the hero, is given almost nothing to do after the first 30 minutes apart from look hunky. Now, he may not have fully developed them yet, but Arnie does have comedic chops, and either way he's always had considerable presence on screen. But, with nothing to do, he's just sort of...well...there.

Whatever was going on here was likely funnier than what was getting filmed...
I already mentioned the highlights of the supporting cast above: Jack Elam, Foster Brooks, and Mel Tillis. Strother Martin, who was in the previously reviewed Hannie Caulder, is a fantastic character actor whose wasted in his brief appearance as Charming's father. And strangely, he's not even brought back once they arrive back at his mining outpost. Most painful of all is Paul Lynde's final screen performance as the "Indian" chief Nervous Elk.  Now Brooks' turn as the Jewish chief in Saddles has a strange but relatively funny air to it. Lynde's, however, is so drab as to barely register as racist as it is. Lynde was a great purveyor of innuendo and wordplay in his day, and this was not the note to go out on.

The happy face but heavy heart of a man that could have blazed a saddle...
Well now I've seen it, and now I know.  I was due for a reminder in this internet age of rediscovery that more often than not when one finds a film with stars that seem to big to be forgotten, there's usually a reason.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

M. Diamant

Today's entry is to be a quickie of sorts.

As I've mentioned before, family and friends come across random books and colorful paperbacks in their various travels, which they often forward on to me. Usually, I enjoy these little oddities, the stranger the better.

This time around, it was a copy of a non-fiction book by James Bond creator Ian Fleming about the illegal diamond trade that centered around the mines of Africa, which was related to him by a man who helped bust up a great many of the smuggling rings.  The book for the most part is an interesting if not terribly compelling affair.  If you're looking for lurid, Scarface-like chainsaw massacres in the bush, you'll be in for quite a disappointment.  However, it is amazing the lengths of creativity some smugglers went to to get stones out, that amount of stones that were just lying around different parts of Africa, and just how many nations were in on the steals.

At the same time, it's a strong reminder of just how colonialism ravaged much of the world while injecting European values into various cultures.  Naturally, one of the first results was the introduction of new disease, such as those that wiped out the Native North Americans. However, at least disease was a two-way street.  Of course new and usually more destructive weapons entered scenes with already strained tribal relationships. Slavery was often an aspect of it.  The rule of the privileged few over the many.  And then there's the one perhaps least spoken of: Drug Trade.  You don't often here much about the Opium Wars started between British colonialists from India and the Chinese, but I've been thinking of them due to the similarities between then and now (ie. The Chinese only exporting goods, but not buying from the rest of the world.) that led to mass trade and popularization of opiates as recreational drugs.

Lastly, there was the element of greed given to groups who often didn't know what the fuss was all about, such as the Inca who freely offered their precious metals and jewels to the Spanish.  To them, it's only value was as decoration...until the Spanish taught them a cruel lesson in economics.  This was given a similar mirror with diamond mining, where not only the workers but also the very countries receive little comparative reward for the precious resources drawn out of the their soil.  Diamond conglomerates reap the rewards and take them out of impoverished countries whose inhabitants, with riches so near at hand, quickly set up illegal ways and means to try and benefit either off their labor or these valuable gemstones. And naturally, over time, corruption becomes an all-encompassing top-to-bottom phenomenon as long as such large amounts of money and such abject poverty live so close together.

This pic of Fleming is about as bad ass as this review's gonna get.
I, however, am moralizing in a way that Fleming's book does not.  Like I said, an interesting if slightly dry account of the policing that had to be established by the various colonial governments to help stop illegal diamond trafficking after World War II. It's just that one can't help but ponder the bigger historical picture of how such interference changes the course of makes me think of Afghanistan...

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

"But I'm Gonnna Shock Her Out of Her Miniskirt..."

And so today, we'll wrap up the world of Matt Helm with The Wrecking Crew (1968).

If you're waiting for a final poster joke about "balls", you're gonna be waiting a long time.
As I mentioned in my review of the third installment in the franchise, The Wrecking Crew would experience something of a change in tone.  Oddly enough, I thought of an apt Bond metaphor.  Though each of the films kept ratcheting up the amount of gadgets and crazy situations, it was during Roger's stint that the movies moved into full blown cartoon territory.  Moonraker (1979) was the pinnacle of silliness as it not only knocked the over-the-top qualities of The Spy Who Loved Me up another notch, but also made a half-assed stab at the Star Wars boom.  So when Bond returned in 1981 with For Your Eyes Only, it was not only the most serious and subdued of Roger's stint as 007, but perhaps of the entire franchise up to that point.

Now, positing The Wrecking Crew as the most serious of the Helm movies...well, they only toned it down to somewhere around Our Man Flint level.  Most of the endless innuendo is gone from much of the banter, though Dino still gets in a regular flow of zingers.  There's still plenty of lovely ladies, but each has a part to play in the plot. The gadgets are nothing too wacky, and most of the scenarios are remarkably plausible if comically performed (I would suggest looking up the term "haymaker" with regards to fighting and consider how useful it is in life and death combat between trained professionals).

I prefer to believe this was the life of spies...
The story concerns $1 billion of US gold being stolen from a train traveling through Europe, though why all that gold would be travelling via train through Europe's never really made clear, when it's high-jacked by wealthy industrialist Count Massimo Contini and his deadly fiancée Linka Karesky.  Matt Helm's sent to Denmark to covertly locate the gold and wrest it back from Contini before it plunges the world money markets into chaos. (This is what happens when you're on the gold standard, folks!)  Since Matt more or less knows who stole it and roughly where it is, the movie's more or less a string of set pieces trying to bump Matt and his helper Freya Carlson off or trying to seduce Matt into stealing the gold for himself. I'm pretty sure without having seen it, you can guess what happens.

If you guessed alien invasion...that's cool...but wrong.

No joke. Just something lovely.
Dean eases into this more relaxed version of Helm with just the amount of cool you would expect.  While the part hasn't exactly moved into firm dramatic territory, Dino seems more comfortable not having to race to spit out double entendres with every retort. His only problem comes with Freya, played by Sharon Tate.  (Without dragging the tragic events of the Manson Family murders into this, let's just say that there's a certain sad air that will likely only bother you if you're familiar with the exuberant Tate's sorrowful fate. The same thing happened the first time I saw what should've been another comic romp with Tate in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967).) Freya's the most bumbling thing Matt's had to deal with since Stella Stevens played Gail Hendricks in the first Helm adventure, and to be honest, considering the shift in tone, she's the one element that seems to belong in an earlier Helm-er. She's the first thing to really break Matt's cool, and robbing Dino of cool is cinematic suicide in terms of the fun.

Those of you waiting for a "Hello, little buddy!" just got one.
The rest of the cast is a lot of fun. Nigel Green, who plays Contini, is perhaps the most convincing foe since Karl Malden in Murderer's Row.  Elke Sommers is her usual lovely ice queen self.  Tina Louise of Gilligan's Island fame makes an appearance as a double-crossing Gypsy dancer.  But perhaps most interesting is Nancy Kwan as the Hong Kong assassin, Yu-Rang, who, apart from the goofy name (which I assume was some sort of nod to the colorful super-villain henchmen monikers of Bond), is far less offensive an Asian character than one would expect from a movie from this time period.  I'm not going to say fully positive as there's a number of gongs and "Chinese" music stings throughout the film.  I suspect the better portrayal might be due, at least in part, to the movies fight choreographer. You may have heard of him...fella by the name of Bruce Lee.  Oh, and as I forgot to mention it the last time around, like its predecessors, the last two films also features another movie score heavy-hitter with the wonderful sounds of Hugo Montenegro.

Considering the era, is it ok that I hear Pete Sellers saying "Kaaaaay-tooooo?" when I look at this? I mean, I know that's the Pink Panther and not Green Hornet and all...
So to wrap it all up: if The Ambushers makes you look at The Wrecking Crew as "Criminey, here we go again...", let me assure you that it's not that.  But at the same time, if you wanted more of the same old same old, it's not that either. If anything, it's a fairly familiar and mostly enjoyable ride that makes you wonder where it would have gone if, as promised in the end credits, they had made The Ravagers next.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

"By the prickling of my thumbs..."

A few months back, I reviewed Charles Finney's influential oddity, The Circus of Dr. Lao.  In satisfying my curiosity about Lao's origin and literary history, I came across one of those books I had always meant to read but had simply never gotten around to: Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (1962). After Ray's passing early this year, I decided it was past time that I should get off my duff and take in a little classic Bradbury. And I figured, as long as I was catching up on reading the book, I may as well watch the movie.

Bradbury has long occupied an odd literary position: one of the few widely respected genre writers (up there with Asimov and Clarke), but in many ways, still dismissed as being largely for young adults. My last exposure to him was in high school.  Because I moved around a lot, my reading list was an odd Frankenstein of books. I missed a lot of the one's everyone read, and caught a lot that no one else did.  So I actually read Fahrenheit 451 on my own, but had to read The Martian Chronicles for class.  Fahrenheit is probably the third best known and often cited science fiction explorations after 1984 and Brave New World, while Chronicles is probably the second best known book about Martians after War of the Worlds. And though I recall enjoying them both, other than a few short stories from various collections, that largely ended my exposure to Bradbury.

It's sort of fitting that as my age has more or less doubled since I last read him, that I should return to him on this darkly-tone exploration of age and maturity.  Something Wicked opens on one of those nostalgic buddy stories that began, in may ways in America, with Tom and Huck.  Will Halloway and his buddy Jim Nightshade are inseparable, living the adventures of young boys in rural America.  One day, a strange lightning rod salesman warns them of a storm coming, and come it does, in the middle of the night, in the form of a strange carnival: Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show.  Soon, strange things begin to happen among the locals, and Will and Jim discover some of the carnival's strange secrets which largely revolve around a magic carousel.  The boys quickly end up way in over their heads in confronting the demonic Mr. Dark whose skin crawls with living tattoos, and must enlist the help of Will's father, Charles, the town librarian, in ridding the town of the magical chaos.

The film, from 1983, with a script by Bradbury, is a fun and fairly faithful adaptation of the novel. And, oddly enough, this is one of those few times, where I wouldn't fall back on that old cliché that the book was wildly better than the movie. The book was quite good, and had multiple passage of poetic beauty that were stunning and surprising.  The movie had a good cast, some very fun thrills, and has aged far better than much of its 80's brethren that were aimed at younger audiences. But, I actually would've preferred something that fell between the two.

Now, without trying to ruin either one, I'll try and briefly discuss what I mean.  The book captured the tone of nostalgia better, where the movie just had well made period look without evoking much of the feel.  In a story that's a study on aging, innocence lost, and regret, the stronger nostalgic tone makes the points resonate.  Now I prefer the book's approach of being less direct about the fate of the people who fall prey to the carnival, letting the boys figure out the mystery for themselves...but, I preferred the movie's more active and direct approach in resolving the conclusion.  To explain myself, I'll need to branch off a bit.

In some ways, Something Wicked appears to follow the usual tropes of the hero's journey:  Will and Jim enter a dark place in order to make a journey that will turn them from boys to men as they conquer their fears to conquer the evil Shadow Show.  Problem is, they don't exactly do it all themselves.    Will ultimately is the protagonist, but it's not just his story, nor Jim's, but also his father's.  Charles Halloway, at first appears to be the wise old man character, but about halfway through the book he becomes a sort of secondary protagonist, and in some ways a future mirror of Will, as if both a young and an old version of the character are both competing for the same goal for different reasons: one to grow up the other to keep from dying.  Now, a little after midway in the book, there comes a point where Charles Halloway gets...shall we say..."preachy", and it bogs down the story as Bradbury commits the literary sin of "telling" rather than "showing".  His speech about the "Autumn people", in the midst of this, is a definite highlight to the book, and I was sad to see it get a sort of glossing over in the movie. The movie, oddly enough, does a better job initially of wedding the two threads together, but just like the book, I ultimately began to feel like I wasn't sure whose story this was supposed to be. Now I applaud Bradbury for bucking the system in several ways, but it's funny how much the change in the ancient formula throws things off.

By the end, the movie institutes a more active and satisfying conclusion as compared to the more "love conquers all" plot device of the book.   I'm not sure if that's just because I've become so accustomed to movie endings that anything more abstract feels like I've been robbed, or if I've just become to jaded to believe in a "love conquers all" finale. In some way, I'm thinking it's the jaded one because, funny enough, the very ending of both book and movie are yet another one where you can't help but wonder what's gonna happen once the "feel good" moment has passed and the townspeople start asking where the carnival vanished to so suddenly and the authorities have to start asking where all the vanished townspeople are.

In wrapping up, I'd like to give the movie a little more attention. It's a good looking film with some pretty snazzy effects for the time period.  While reading the book, I had imagined someone like Robards as Charles Halloway, and though Robards looks a little older than the middle-aged book version of Charles, he put in a warm performance. Jonathan Pryce, who's played a fair few villains, has, to my mind, never been as menacing as he was Mr. Dark.  While he didn't have the sharper more devilish features that I had imagined, he pulls off the role with great aplomb.  The real surprise was Pam Grier as the Dust Witch, which did add an exotic sensuality to the atmosphere of the necromantic carnival.  I had been imagining something between Angela Lansbury in Neil Jordan's strange The Company of Wolves and Zelda Rubinstein, the diminutive medium from Poltergeist. In all, it was a solid adaptation and enjoyable adaptation.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

"A game-legged old man and a drunk. That's all you got?"

We're gonna take a break this week from Matt Helm, but I haven't forgotten that I still have The Wrecking Crew left to cover.  See, that's the only way I know Dean Martin: from comedy.  Though, I'm sure Dino wouldn't have any problem with that legacy. I first saw him as a kid in the Cannonball Run movies, and then later from clips of his old roasts on PBS, and later on it was with the rest of the Rat Pack in the original Ocean's 11. So, since I like to fill in the spots where I see gaps in my experience, I decided to take in the serious side of Dean Martin and watched Howard Hawks' 1959 western, Rio Bravo.

The movie opens with Dude (Dean Martin), the town drunk, reaching for a dollar that's been mockingly thrown to him into a nearby spittoon by Joe Burdette, the brother of the town's wealthy rancher, when John Chance (John Wayne), the sheriff, kicks it away out of pity. Dude hits Chance knocking him out, and Burdette's men hold up Dude for Joe to go to work on.  When a bystander tries to intercede, Joe shoots him in cold blood.  This leads to Joe's capture and the start of a long stand-off between the sheriff and Nathan Burdette, the wealthy rancher while they wait for U.S. Marshalls to come for Joe.

With all the singers, John Wayne fights to keep the movie from becoming Paint Your Wagon...
For the most part, the movie is good fun if a little slow for a couple of jags.  It never exactly gets tiresome, but every now and again, I felt like I kept waiting for something to pep things up just a hair.  There's a lot of walking from the jail to the hotel, banter in the hotel, walking back to the jail, banter in the jail, and then walking back up the street again.  Now, when I say it's a stand-off, that's because Nathan stashes men in the town to make sure that the sheriff doesn't try to sneak his brother off to the authorities under his nose.  The only problem is, his men largely just stand around and aren't really all that intimidating until they finally make a move here and there.

A lot of this is because the movie was in reaction to the western High Noon (1952). High Noon starred Gary Cooper as a marshall who had to face down the vengeful members of the Miller gang all alone when no one will come to his aid.  It's long been known to be an allegory of the House of Un-American Activities hearings in Hollywood that led to the black-listing of the Hollywood Ten, a group of filmmakers who had affiliations with the Communist Party.  John Wayne was famously not a fan of High Noon, and enlisted Hawks to help him make Rio Bravo as a response.  So as the sheriff who can't help but turn down help, Bravo definitely wins the "feel good" prize, but it simply can't compete with the desperation and suspense, the palpable dread, of High Noon.

But it does feel good, and it is nice and enjoyable to see a movie that's not so jaded and shows a whole town pitching in with its sheriff to keep the rich guy from bullying his way into setting his murderous jerk brother free.  It's just not very nail-biting.

Considering his reputation, Dino deserved an award for this scene alone....
The only thing that had me nervous was Dino's character, Dude.  He's essentially the heart of the picture.  See, the problem too often with Wayne is that he's always John Wayne in nearly every picture, and the "Duke" is almost a little too indestructible. I can only think of two exceptions where he wasn't Wayne: 1) The Conqueror (1956), the strange movie that saw him playing Genghis Khan, and 2) my favorite Wayne picture, The Searchers (1956), which was one of his most complex and extremely unlikable characters.  Dude, on the other hand, is all too vulnerable, though he's greased lightning with a gun.  The sheriff explains that Dude was a former deputy who ran off with a girl who was no good only to return to take up his new position as the town drunk.  And Dino gives a strong performance as he fights off the shakes and set-backs that keep pointing him back to booze.  It was the surprising amount of screen time they gave his resurrection that had me waiting for the inevitable fall...but I won't say how or to what degree the movie delivered on that score.

The movie gave the ladies Ricky, I'll leave this for the fellas...
The supporting cast also does a fine job. The obvious stunt casting of Ricky Nelson as the new kid with a pistol only really grates during a song number late in the film; however, having both Ricky and Dino in the movie, I knew they had to sing something at some point. But it arrives late, and just when you feel the final action should be swinging into motion.  Angie Dickinson is very enjoyable as the Duke's love interest, the gambler's ex-girl, Feathers.  The scene where she has Wayne on his heels suggesting he give her a strip search is quite a corker.  Unfortunately, her fast paced dialogue, a Hawks' trademark, seems a little ill-at-ease as the movie wears on, especially in a western setting, and it seems like the tender scenes are being forcibly wedged in there for the benefit of the women in the audience. As if throwing them Ricky wasn't good enough.

Looks like Howard would concur...
In all,  for soaking up a few hours on a Sunday afternoon, you could do a whole lot worse than this relaxed and enjoyable picture.  After all, Howard Hawks and John Wayne must've been happy with it as they more or less remade it two more times.