Thursday, September 27, 2012

A Little Touch of Schmilsson...

For a first stab in some time at a music review, it's tough to imagine a better candidate for putting an author at ease than Harry Nilsson.

That's Harry on the Left.
In recent times, Harry's finally gotten some well-deserved recognition, but for many years he was one of those ultra-creative guys who was more a part of the pop culture unconscious than the conscious: the familiar voice of that "who sang this song, again?" guy.  Ironically, for all of the man's amazing amount of output, it's for two cover songs, "Everybody's Talking" and "Without You", that Nilsson is perhaps now best known for. Before listening to his stuff for myself, I mostly heard his name floating about in conversations with hardcore Beatles fans, which makes sense, since who would revere a guy more than the Beatles did than fans of the Beatles.  Some know Harry for his bawdy and boozy part in John Lennon's wild "Lost Weekend"period, which lasted for about eighteen months (1973-74), while Lennon was separated from Yoko Ono.

Though I have a fair cross section of his catalogue, it was Nilsson's 1973 album, A Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, that I most recently began listening to. This record finds Harry in the seemingly elderly part of his mature phase and quite a way materially from his early psychedelic Tin Pan Alley days, or does it?  The set list, during which one arrangement blends smoothly into the next creating an album long medley of sorts, is a solid set of standards and showtunes, and by including numbers like "It Had to Be You" and "Makin' Whoopee," Harry's heart still lies deeply with whimsy., even if it's not the childlike, pop-sensible whimsy of The Point (1971). (I highly recommend seeking out this album, or the accompanying animated special of it. An amazing delight for children of all ages.)

If you think his thumb's hot, you should see the piano after a session.
The album is not a grabber, and if you're waiting for it to kick in, you're in for a disappointing listen.  A Little Touch... seems meant for late night listening, for either a night on the balcony or for getting some after hours creative work done.  And though it features the heavily orchestrated arrangement of any number of Easy Listening records (performing just this sort of slate of songs), Harry's light touch and laidback approach to the material keep it from being the bombastic overproduced affair that many aging pop stars seem to churn out. In all, Nilsson delivers a record full of numbers with just enough of the dust blown off of them to sound airy and fresh, but not too much to lose that well-worn and familiar feel.

(If you search it out, be sure to pick up a version with the bonus tracks from the sessions which blend right in with the rest of the album, including a lovely take on "Over the Rainbow".)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Cronenberg & Cosmopolis

As much as I hate to say it, the trailer for Cosmopolis (2012) has been one of the absolute few to stir any feeling of excitement in me to go to the cinema.  In fact, though I haven't seen them all (close but not quite), David Cronenberg is one of the very few directors left whose newest work alway generates a sense of anticipation. His horror work in the 80's always stood out from the rest for the level of depth it contained compared to the teen-camper hacking that was so prevalent around it.  It still amazed me that though Videodrome (1983) was a prediction of the future of television, it was remarkably prescient about trends and directions the internet would take early on (And now, TV and internet are slowly becoming one and the same).

I've equally met his more dramatic work with equal anticipation...though I'll admit, Cronenberg lost me for a few years when I was still a youth and he was ready to move away from a more visceral horror for a more psychological one. I recently revisited Dead Ringers (1988), which, I must admit, as a story about the mental breakdown of twin gynecologists, sort of lost something on me as a teenager, but I found it to still be a shocking and surprising film today.  However, I was perfectly ready and excited by Cronenberg's crossover success with A History of Violence (2005) and Eastern Promises (2007).

However, when a friend related to me his recent experience of seeing Cosmopolis in the theater, and the hostile reaction by the portly woman seated next to him...something like "That was bullshit!" at the film's conclusion, led me to remember a story of my own bewilderment at a Cronenberg screening. I was in college in Austin when Cronenberg's Crash (1996) came out. The one about sex & car crashes based on the J.G. Ballard novel, not the silly overwrought one about racism.  After over an hour and half of bizarre and extreme sexual exploration, people started leaving when James Spader and Elias Koteas shared a few kisses ten minutes before the end. And all I could think was, "You sat through all that...and this...this is what freaks you out? Sheesh."

Cosmopolis is not easy. Two-thirds of it takes place in the claustrophobic dark confines of a futuristic stretch limo with its protagonist, billionaire Eric Packer, having conversations with the various people who meet him along his route across town to get a haircut.  It's philosophical. It's obtuse. And the characters don't seem to be talking to each other as much as absent-mindedly jabbing you with the tines of a fork representing their intellectual positions. I don't have to stretch my mind far to see where it would be a difficult experience, and yet I couldn't help but find it fascinating.

Pattinson is an excellent choice to play Packer. He embodies the cold stoicism of a marble statue, yet, all the while has a highly calculating mind and a predatory ferocity just under the surface. He plays Packer's slow meltdown in a subtle note-by-note change rather than let it devolve into histrionics.  The supporting cast, including Jay Baruchel, Samantha Morton, and Juliette Binoche, among many other fine performances, create a sort of personality pantheon each coming for a few moments of conversation or fornication with their Zeus.  Packer's eventual confrontation with Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti) has the feel of a one-act play of its own, a sort of mini-film within the film. However, I'd rather not say too much at this point.  Talking about the details of movies 20 years old is one thing, but I'd like to see people give this one a chance before I give away too much.

My final note is that I've seen a number of reviewers criticize the less than seamless nature of the  "rear-screen projection" look of the world passing by the limo.  Now, I've never been an apologist for chintzy effects, but this one never once bothered me.  I kept thinking about how in this climate of 1% v. 99% having heard so many anecdotes of people who've never opened their own door or fed their children, etc. So to me,  in that attitude, it seemed like an appropriate way for a guy like that to see the world: as though it were all happening somewhere else to other people even when they're rocking his own limo.  And if you think that's a load of bullshit, I'll refer you to the movie's discussion of shutting out city noise.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Man Who Makes No Mistakes!

This week, I received a wonderful surprise in the mail.  My mom, while exploring an estate sale, found me a copy of the Pocket Paperback of Our Man Flint, one of my favorite of the 1960's James Bond knock-offs.  Ultimately it was a bit of a letdown, as I was at first excited thinking the movie had been based on a book I'd not heard of, only to find out that it was a novelization of the screenplay.

Mine, unfortunately, doesn't look quite this nice.
Well, let's just say that Jack Pearl isn't Ian Fleming...and, well, it's not as though Fleming was the best novelist in the world.  I still find it one of the great ironies that one of the greatest Bond films, Goldfinger (1964), was one of the dullest books I've ever read.  Now, in many ways, the movie is very faithful to the events of the book, but the movie doesn't waste nearly the same amount of time on a golf game between protagonist and antagonist.  I'm happy to report, however, that while I almost gave up reading another Fleming afterward, I have sense consumed and enjoyed several of the other Bond adventures and short stories.

Back to the matter at hand: The fun thing about novelizations is that they frequently give glimpses of material in the screenplay that didn't make it to the screen.  And in many cases, this alternate material is far wilder than what was eventually filmed. Pearl's book had a few of these but the writing was fairly pedestrian and by the numbers.  The most hilarious part was the frequent mention of female bosoms and buttocks heaving and flexing under whatever "thin" fabric they happened to be wearing.

The fantastic poster by Bob Peak
Reading the book spurred me to revisit the film, which I hadn't watched in some time.  In an article, I wrote many moons ago I discussed the slew of Bond knock-offs that populated the 60's, and the fact that there's a reason why James Bond is still the best known and only survivor of the jetset spy genre.  Now with the Cold War behind us and tough times still ahead, Intelligence has never been more important, but we've all seen that it's definitely not the glamourous affair of strong-arming an informant at a state dinner to find out who put the hit out on the Duke of Wherever.

The Superspy owes a debt to the Surrealists.
Derek Flint was to be the American answer to Bond: hence the explanatory "Our Man" in the title.  An early scene has Flint eschewing the Walther PPK and the myriad of other weapons associated with the movie spygame as barbaric.  Flint is every bit as sophisticated and intelligent as Bond if not more so, and the publicity for the film shows him tackling armies of girls at a time.  The plot concerns a cabal of scientists who are controlling the weather to bring about unilateral disarmament of the world powers.  Flint chases them through exotic locations to their underground paradise of drugged guards and pleasure units (read: hot chicks).

James Coburn is at his charming best as the world class worldly superspy, and he uses his toothy rogueish grin to get him in and out of hot water.  In fact, it's largely Coburn's charisma that helps us overlook Flint's biggest flaw as a protagonist: he's flawless. It's never compelling storytelling when a hero comes off invulnerable, but Coburn keeps Flint completely watchable.  Lee J. Cobb is also enjoyable as Flint's supervisor Cramden, though he and Coburn would have far more fun in their respective roles in the sequel, In Like Flint (1967).  Flint's beauties are a bit on the stiff side, but Gila Golan is both alluring and fun as the turncoat beauty, who lures Flint in only to succumb to his charm.

The only thing preferable to Miller Time.
The sets are big, flashy and ridiculous. The action features a lot of gymnastics and fisticuffs (Coburn was one of Bruce Lee's famous students).  The stock footage and model shots are typically shoddy, but fun.  The pace lags a bit in place, since, like I said, Flint rarely seems to be in any kind of eminent danger.  On the flip side, there's a good dosage of humor...and an eagle that only attacks Americans!  In all, it's a colorful and enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours in the Movie World of superspy-dom.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Other Friday the 13th...

I'm a child of the 13th, and I couldn't tell you whether the bad luck on various birthdays has had anything of whether or not my party fell on a Friday or not.

The interesting thing about superstition is whether or not it's worth crossing it, and that endless loop of what-if's it creates concerning various outcomes if you had waited or just done something on that day.  But what if what you were thinking of doing was bad anyway, and no matter what day it was, someone was likely to get hurt?  Today's review is about a book that puts on the thumbscrews pondering just that sort of thing: Black Friday by David Goodis.

David Goodis is one of the lesser known of the crime fiction greats.  In fact, after his death in the late 60's, Goodis' work went out of print in the U.S., and survived mainly in reprints by the lovers of all things noir, the French (Anyone ever see Moon in the Gutter (aka. La lune dans le caniveau, 1983) starring Depardieu, the French cult classic based on Goodis?).  Like so many of his crime lit brethren, Goodis' works returned to his native soil in the late 80's, thanks to publisher Black Lizard.  In a similar vein to Jim Thompson's ties with the Oklahoma and Texas underworld, Goodis too benefited from time spent in seedy nightclubs and bars in his favorite location to fictionalize, Philadelphia. Sadly, Goodis is perhaps best known today for his famous lawsuit against the 60's TV staple, The Fugitive, for allegedly being lifted from his novel Dark Passage, which unfortunately became more a case about whether his book was in the public domain than whether the ideas were stolen.

Black Friday is a fun pressure cooker of a book.  A fugitive named Hart hops off the train in Philly to avoid capture when he encounters a man dying from a gunshot wound. The man unloads a wad of stolen money on Hart which leads to his being captured by the team of professional thieves that did the shooting.  The plot covers the week before their next heist, which unfortunately falls on Friday the 13th. The team can't let Hart go, even though he can't go to the cops anyway, but they also can't decide whether they can trust him despite his story of being a pro-criminal himself.  The suspense it ratcheted up bit by bit as squabbles break out and romance develops in this little house full of unsavory characters as the clock winds down to go time.

Now, this book may not feature enough crime for fans of modern crime fiction.  It functions much better as a study in personality mechanics, where a new cog is dropped into a smoothly running machine, and with each turn all the paths deviate farther from their standard courses.  So while it delivers on suspense, it's not exactly thrilling per se, and the ending, while appropriate, may not be the climatic stand off you were coming to expect (see: The reaction to the conclusion of No Country for Old Men (2007).)  What's undeniable however is the strength of Goodis' ability to turn dialogue into a  fencing match of words and wits, and an atmosphere that makes you appreciate the shelter of a lion's den to stay out of the cold, hostile, white world outside.

Thursday, September 13, 2012 Thrilling Adventure!!!

As a kid, I was mostly a Spider-guy and an occasional X-man.

I remember going with my mom to take my great-grandmother grocery shopping, and each time we went, Great Grandma Johnson would buy me a three pack of Spider-man comics which came in a plastic bag with two-tone representations of the web-slinger on the top tab. Later, between the 7-11 at the corner and a Target-esque store called Gemco (I think...haha), I started raiding the spinning racks at for a book or two.  That's where the X-men came into the picture.

Seeing as how this never happens inside, is the statute of limitations up for suing over false advertising?
But when I had whatever was still on the rack, I'd buy stuff purely on the drawing on the front.  In the late 70's and early 80's, comic books excelled at the deceptive covers that promised something wildly not contained between its covers. That was how Thor and Daredevil first joined my ranks.  Daredevil #183 seemed a weird place to start as it appeared that The Punisher was blowing away the titular hero, but that was the first one I ever bought.

Though I watched Superfriends and had seen the first two Superman movies as well as a fair share of reruns of the Batman TV show, I never took much to DC heroes.  It wasn't until I was in my early teens that I returned to DC and picked up backissues of Alan Moore's bizarre and beautiful run on Swamp Thing. So I was still a long way from the superhero polity of these simpler, more mythical titans of truth and justice.  Still, the occasional DC character still slipped into my growing stack of colored pulp in my closet.

Enter Blackhawk.

In the era of Big Wheels, call the War Wheel kiddie catnip for my young brain
I didn't know who he was, but I figured that whatever a War Wheel was, it had to be pretty badass.

Just as I was growing some sense of maturity in the 80's, I stumbled right from the usual superhero comics right into the crazy and creative world of Epic comics, Marvel's specialty creator-owned line.  Some of what I found there is still among my favorite comics: Blood: A Tale, Elektra Assassin, Stray Toasters, Alien Legion and Marshall Law among others.  Sadly, Epic only lasted for a decade and half, and while DC toyed with stranger properties like Swamp Thing and a few others, it wasn't until Epic was folding that their own specialty line was launched as Vertigo (which, ironically, would go on to reprint many Epic series as graphic novels).

I still occasionally get the bite to root out books from this era, as they're the closest I would say comics in America got to an artistic maturity, and not just the mature label on the cover that usually only indicated the comic would have some titties and a prodigious amount of swearing.  It's sort of a hilarious irony that having comic characters do all the things real adults do instantly renders them and their stories even more infantile.  Anyhow, like I said, there was an air of amazing possibility that these books still hold.

So despite the lack of War Wheels,  I ran down all three issues of the 1987 rebirth of the World War II fighting ace, Blackhawk, as reimangined by Howard Chaykin.  In the tale, Blackhawk is in the midst of a falling out with the U.S. government as a possible Communist sympathizer, which his Nazi rival, British traitor Death Mayhew (that's right, a bad guy just named straight up Death), is using to steal an early atomic weapon.  The adventure sends Blackhawk chasing across Europe and the Middle East to recover the bomb and clear his name before Mayhew lives up to his strange moniker.  It's fine pulp pulled from the pages of old Men's magazines rendered in exquisite square-jawed style by Chaykin.

Chaykin began working in comics in the 1970's for both DC and Marvel, and if there's one thing he's always excelled at it was a sense of classical adventure.  His artwork walks an amazing line between traditional realist comic depiction to the more modernist and avant garde, but always with that air of the era of the man's man...though his women are usually just as smart and just as tough as his leading men.  He's also one of the only comic artists that's ever pulled off ink pointillism as a shading technique that I've ever seen.

This series of books is exciting fun, and features a number of period details that lend it an air of authenticity often missing when the comics resurrect one of their long dormant titles.  Blackhawk made his first appearance in 1941 in the pages of Military Comics printed by Quality comics. DC took over the character, and like most of the traditional war and western titles, he had a rocky off-and-on publishing history, which even featured a period where they tried to turn Blackhawk and his team into goofy superheroes. Like Speilberg and Lucas did with a serial-style hero like Indiana Jones, Chaykin is able to appeal to the nostalgia of the modern age, while still telling a story far more complex than those of the era he originally appeared in.

Though beautifully illustrated and well-written, it does take a little getting used to in following what's going on when and who's talking in some of the more ambitious transitions. Also, don't expect much exposition as to time, place, or character, as you're sort of just dumped into the world of Blackhawk and it's up to you to catch up. Nevertheless, it was a good trip back to one of my favorite times in comics, and well worth seeking out. As a side note, I particularly enjoyed Chaykin's reinterpretations of period newspapers and propaganda in the various inserts throughout the book.

We'll see what I track down next, when the desire for this era takes me.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Barbarella...Without the Dignity

(SPOILER ALERT: As promised, here's an updated version of my post concerning the Italian space opera, Starcrash.  It's less a review and more a play-by-play rehash of the movie itself, only now with more pictures!  If you haven't seen it, you may want to before reading this, or read it and I'll be amazed if you still want to see it. Someone, somewhere, if there's justice in the world, will get me a Blu-ray of this for my efforts. Enjoy!)

Often enough, I've warned friends and family of the dangers of returning to the beloved movies of your past. More than once, like a moth to the flames, I have made this error and returned to those movies. More often than not, a beloved former cinema gem in my mind's eye has been dashed to the ground, forever broken and tarnished. On a few occasions, I've been delightfully surprised that the movie managed to still hold some or all of it's magic. But the real fun is finding the rarest of all, and running full tilt head first into the open arms of an old movie's overwhelming badness.

This movie is awful, and I love it almost more than breathing.

Nothing about this poster says you won't love this movie.
Starcrash (1979, d. Luigi Cozzi)

Now, by 1979, we all know that Star Wars had blown away box office records and spawned a following that multiplied faster than Gremlins being sprayed with a firehose. It wasn't, however, until the success was solidified by The Empire Strikes Back, that the drive really geared up to cash in on sci-fi's new success.

80's Sci-Fi or Cruising sequel?
Probably the two most well known cash-in attempts were made by a name that has produced many a groan in many cineastes, Dino De Laurentiis. Now, I own both of these films, (...and how shall I put it in the most diplomatic way between the lovers and the haters of these films...ahem...) and though they are not classics, they still retain a certain joyous charm shown by the lavish work put into them. Those films are Flash Gordon (1980) and Dune (1984). But of course, those weren't the only ones, they were probably just the biggest and the only ones that anyone seems to remember. But in 1978, Producers Nat and Patrick Wachberger, who definitely weren't Dino, must have decided to toss anything and everything into one movie in the hopes of grabbing some franchise-starting glory.

If you've seen Star Wars, I don't need to describe the opening crawling spaceship shot. The major difference here of course is that the Star Destroyer looked like...well, something that could damn well destroy some stars. Our spaceship here looks like you could crush it by accidentally laying a book on top of it...or knocking it off the table. Once we got inside the ship, and I saw all the left over leatherette costumes from Planet of the Vampires (1965...and a much better film), I thought maybe it wouldn't be all bad. That was until I saw one of the most leaden exposition scenes ever interrupted by what appeared to be a super-imposed death dealing force field that looked like the inner workings of a lava lamp. Oh, oh, oh...the guys in the ship are on a mission from the Emperor to find the ultimate weapon created by the evil...are you ready for this...Count Zarth Arn! (Zarth's not only pure evil...he also has one of cinema-dom's most impressive haircuts...The English language lacks the precice vocabulary to accurately describe it.)

Who needs a large black helmet when you've got all these lovely locks?
Ok, moving on. We cut to space smugglers Stella Star (Caroline Munro, former Bond girl, The Spy Who Loved Me) and her buddy Akton (Marjoe Gortner, who grew to fame as the youngest ordained minister..and who later appeared in American Ninja 3: Blood Hunt) who are on the run (for what...I have no idea...they're from the space cops, Thor and robot Elle (who's actually a guy...and whose voice sounds like Martin Sheen doing a bad Southern accent). Stella and Akton jump into hyperspace (and we're treated to more impressively bad visuals), but are caught after stopping to checkout a derelict space craft. Oh, oh, oh...the derelict craft was one of the launches from the Emperor's scout ship from beginning of the movie...I probably forgot to mention it because even as I was watching it, I didn't think it would be important (...and I've seen Star Wars!)

Weird straps: the stuff of space outfits since long before Leeloo.
So Stella and Akton (I keep thinking of Ohio...or bug spray for some reason) are sentenced to hard labor on two different planets (Oh, I should mention that the judge looks like the head Martian from Invaders from Mars [1953...and also a better movie...even with the goofy effects which are forgiveably 25 years older]). Right....Let's just skip ahead. Stella makes a...uhhh...confusing escape from...ummm...well, I'm not sure what sort of labor...something to do with a furnace. So she escapes, and is picked up by....Thor and Elle, the space cops! Huh? Oh, oh, oh...apparently, Stella is the best pilot in the galaxy, and Akton is the best the Emperor wants them to find the rest of the missing ships that escaped from the spy ship. Are you following any of this? Who cares...let's continue.

The first ship is on a planet...well, it's just a has an ocean, a beach...and a bunch of Amazons...oh, oh, oh, and some woman who we don't know but we do find out that she's loyal to Zarth, and she hates Elle the robot...for some reason that naturally is not explained. So Stella and Elle go down, they get captured, the make another goofy implausible escape, and are then attacked by an enormous stop motion statue. An Aside here: Clash of the Titans (1981) was one of the movies I shouldn't have gone back to, but watching this scene, suddenly and inexplicably, my heart yearned in the hardest way for the majesty that was Harryhausen's Kraken. Oh, and I guess there were no survivors in the one really says what happened to them, but the Amazon queen does tell Stella and Elle that they are spies, and they'll never find Zarth's ultimate weapon. On to the next planet...

The majesty of a tin foil SPACE!!!
For some reason, they stop off on some frozen planet to check out the spy ship that we already saw explode. Now we're told that you'll freeze to death instantly if the sun goes down on this planet. Why are we told this? Well, because someone's got to freeze to death of course. As it turns out, Thor is a traitor. He's working for Zarth and he leaves Stella outside to freeze after he "kills" Akton (remember the old soap opera rule: if you don't see a body...). Somehow, Elle saves Stella from freezing to death...I'd tell you how, but I really don't know...but she is in suspended animation (?). Akton returns from the "dead" powers. He kills Thor, and re-animates Stella...who looks like she was covered in a slimy version of that fake snow sh!t you spray on X-mas trees. I think that it's at this point that Stella somehow discovers that Akton can see the future...right-o...if it isn't, I'm sorry...but you should know...Akton can see the future...but apparently, he can only see it after getting whacked on the head by Thor...Moving on...

Thanks internet for doing my work for me.
Now the third and final planet they visit is filled with smoke machines....well, smoke machines and cavemen. Yup. They club Elle to smithereens (he's a robot remember?), and capture Stella...who's then rescued by David Hasselhoff! Part of me wishes that was just a punchline...but seriously, she's rescued by David Hasselhoff, who plays Simon, the Emperor's son. He doesn't tell Stella that at first...because...well, he's not sure what sides she's on...but despite that, he still saves her from the cavemen...sort of. Within four minutes of screen time, they're both captured by the cavemen...until Akton arrives wielding something that's kind of...ummm...light saberish. He whoops some caveman @$$, and then reveals that...dun-Dun-DDUUUUUUUNNNNN...the planet they're on holds Zarth's ultimate weapon! (There actually is some explanation on how he figured that out...but that would involve me rehashing even more nonsensical convoluted plot points.)

Next, they go down into the weapon' Akton does a lot of explaining, and who should turn up but Zarth Arn and his haircut! Oh yeah, he's also got some men with him who look just like the Emperor's guys from the beginning (the leatherette spacesuits) but with slightly different hats AND two...umm..stop-motion robots with pirate swords. Like any good villain, he then explains that he's going to blow up the ultimate weapon (huh? why?), which will also kill the Emperor when he arrives to save his son. To someone somewhere...this made perfect sense. Nonetheless, Zarth takes off, leaving the robots to watch the prisoners. What he's going to do next, I have no idea...take over the universe, I guess...but without his ultimate weapon. Maybe he just went out for a sandwich and a beer.

I bet you didn't even notice the robots for that majestic hair.
So, Akton cuts loose with somemore Jedi-esque work on the robots...and though he can still see the future, as far as I understand...he's still cut pretty badly by one. At this point, Hasselhoff (I know I said his character was Simon...but I'm just gonna call him Hasselhoff which I think is a cooler more heroic name) leaps into action with the "light saber" and kills the other robot. Akton, in Ben Kenobi fashion, has to die to fulfill...umm...destiny...which may have meant something if we knew what the hell was going on with him to begin with. Oh, when he dies, he disappears in something that sort of looks like what my TV does when I turn it off. Sure enough, right about this time, the Emperor shows up.

Ok, pause in action...The Emperor did appear before now, but I was sort of saving him up. Do we all know who Christopher Plummer is? I have two fond childhood memories of Chris. Every X-mas my sister and I watched The Sound of Music (1965) on TV with my mom, and Christopher Plummer was the gruff but enventually endearing Captain Von Trapp. Later, my dad and I used to watch Pete Sellers act a fool in the Pink Panther movies, and Christopher Plummer took over the role of the dashing Sir Charles Litton (aka. The Phantom) in Return of the Pink Panther (1975). Yet here he is, and you can almost see the dignity washing away with each frame that he's on screen. Something inside me shed a tear...while I laughed my @$$ off as he explained that his space ship could freeze time while they escaped the destruction of the ultimate weapon. It only got worse...

This is the future! Aerodynamics be damned!
With the ultimate weapon of unknown weapon-ness out of the way, they go to attack Zarth Arn's flying fortress....dear God...Must go on...must finish story...flying fortress that is shaped like a giant hand. (I should mention that it was at this point that I mentally confirmed that I had seen this movie as a kid...I had never forgotten the flying space hand.) Now we're treated to the second round of space dog fights in this movie...treated...yes, Mr. Cozzi, our director, probably inadvertently taking a page from the serials of the past that inspired Star Wars, uses the exact same footage of space ships flying around over and over and over and over and over and over and over again...until...we send in the flying coffins!

Yup, the emperor launches two-man flying coffins in through the windows of Zarth's flying hand ship.  Amazingly, though a great many of these flying coffins make it in...and ignoring that the vacuum of space isn't pulling them and everything else in the ship out into the vaccum of space...they all magically seems to break through the same windows over and over and over again. I mentioned "two-man flying coffins" because that's what comes out of them: two men. However, I began to wonder if the Emperor was such a good guy because...uh...well...all these guys get slaughtered...and um, all his spaceships get destroyed while he, Stella, and Hasselhoff all stand around watching. Sort of seemed like an intergalactic snuff film there for a few minutes.

NOTE: Not the set of the 1979 Academy Awards
Now, all seems lost. Zarth Arn's going to destroy the Emperor's home a way that's never explained...and that definitely will NOT involve the ultimate weapon. Suddenly the Emperor is hit with a plan: Starcrash. Nope, it hasn't been mentioned before, not counting the title. It's sort of explained in a way that can't be summarized by a rational human mind...well, there's going to be some sort of time space warp involving the flying hand ship and some flying city we've never seen before, but essentially, Stella and Elle (who's been rebuilt...quelle surprise!) basically fly out to the flying city and ram it into Zarth's ship.  They escape. Hasselhoff picks them up. Zarth blows up in a lot more repetitive footage of bad miniatures exploding. And instead of a The End with Hasselhoff and Stella making out, Cozzi instead decides to drive Plummer closer to the brink of madness by making him recite the most bizarre, pointless, and nonsensical soliloquoy ever filmed. THE END.

For a minute, I considered rewinding the movie, and copying the soliloquoy down for you...but no, no, gotta see it for yourself...truly. In fact, looking back, I'm not sure that I've done this movie an iota of justice in merely describing it. If you can, just take an hour and a half of your life and throw it away on this glorious travesty of a movie. If you can't manage that, take like a five dollar bill out of your wallet and burn it...for Plummer...for Hasselhoff...and for the great movie that is...STARCRASH!

Sci-fi sexism was never so sexy...and neither was Hasselhoff.
(I would've done my usual reviewing of the performances, direction, camerawork, music, etc. ...but come on...if you just read all I really need to?)

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Psycho Killer Glamour, Qu'est Que C'est?

This weekend led to a strange double header of disturbing other words, I watched a couple of weird movies that were oddly linked.

I had heard for years about Satoshi Kon's Perfect Blue (1997), but even after seeing the director's bizarre hallucinogenic assault Paprika (2006), I still hadn't exactly sought it out.  I suppose there was something to the idea that a psychological thriller in an animated film that was just over an hour in length that created some form of cognitive distaste in me.   Not that I didn't believe that very serious and intense subjects couldn't be carried by animation as I was in my early teens when I first witnessed Akira (1988).  At the same time, I think it's that very tie to the spectacle of science fiction, of which Perfect Blue has none, that made other animated films more desirable to me.

Now having seen it, I feel like, in the words of Fred Sanford, a big dummy.

Perfect Blue is a wonderfully animated and disturbing ride into loss of identity and psychosis.  The story concerns a young pop singer, who decides to ditch her cutesy J-pop world to become a serious actress.  The move rankles many of her devoted male fanbase, one of whom maintains a blog where he posts as her.  At this point, I'm reluctant to describe anymore of the plot as the movie does a great job of layering hallucination and reality in a way to keep you guessing as to what you're seeing and what's really happening.  It's also remarkably prescient about on-line impostors and celebrity stalking, which  existed before now but which really came to its own in the past decade.

Many Japanese directors excel at this form of psychological thriller, taking it to deeper and darker places than most anywhere else.  This film reminded me of an animated version of one of my favorite Japanese films, Sogo Ishii's Angel Dust (1994).  I still remember sitting bolt still in the theater being hammered by this movie when the cutesy couple behind me left because the girlfriend couldn't take it anymore.  Of course, this direction of Japanese cinema became more popular during the horror wave that followed, such as The Ring (1998) and The Grudge (2002), and while I found some gems, their sacrifice of well-developed story (or in some cases, a story that made any kind of sense) for unrelenting atmosphere always left me a touch meh.  (Another worth seeking out is the Korean film A Tale of Two Sisters (2003), which gives the illusion of being another J-horror knock-off when it takes a serious turn for the, to put it delicately, batshit nuts, and becomes a fantastic psychological thriller.)

Oddly enough, the Japanese tend to have the same soft spot for Italian genre cinema that I do. Many of the best widescreen transfers of Spaghetti Westerns (the Japanese call them "Macaroni Westerns") came from Japanese disks.  And much like their fellow gonzo Japanese filmmakers, the Italians also knew went to ratchet up the crazy and the killer.  Slasher movies around the world owe a debt to the Italian 'Giallo', their 60's-70's (and a few in the 80's) thriller genre with a high and bloody body count.  The great difference is that the Giallos tended to have beautiful casts in exotic locations doing fabulous things while getting knocked off, rather than a bunch of stupid teens in some remote cabin in some scary woods.

A very late entry into the genre, Lamberto Bava's Delirium (1987) stars the voluptuous Serena Grandi as a former nude model who now runs a very successful men's magazine when her models start dying at the hands of an obsessed killer who photographs the corpses in front of her old centerfolds.  Now, as usual for the genre, the set-up alone is more than enough excuse to have plenty of beautiful people and a multitude of bared breasts (but being European, it always comes off less sleazy than the usual American Bikini Beach III wet T-shirt competition).  Add in the operatic craziness of one of the best synth-meets-metal scores since Goblin by Simon Boswell...and you're there!

Like I said, the Giallos had pretty well run their course by the time this one came along, and while it has all of the usual tropes, it still managed to keep me guessing.  Part of the fun in most of the best of these is figuring out who the killer is, because nearly every character outside the main character has some sort of sordid or sleazy or shady side that points to them, and there's usually always one moment that frames them in a creepy light. Then there's always the balance of the way too obvious to the way too uninvolved: the voyeuristic disabled kid next door is way too obvious, but the weird photographer hasn't had enough screentime to be a fulfilling killer...see how it works?  Once the killer was revealed, I almost slapped myself for not figuring it out based on earlier clues.

Bava, son of the horror maestro Mario Bava, seems to be having fun and the big tie-in to Perfect Blue above, other than the rash of stabbings, was his inventive use of seeing the victims from the killer's POV where they appeared as grotesque monstrosities.  I wanted more of it, simply for the sheer creativeness, but the effect waned as the story progressed.  Still and all, for a night of silly and tastefully sleazy fun, you could do a whole lot worse.  That's what made them a great pair of thrill: take Pefect Blue straight, and Delirium as the lighter chaser.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

All Without a Steam-Powered Crucifix-Stake Launcher

I've always known that I was never alone in a desire to romanticize the past.  Where I always felt that my view of a previous age veered from most was that I knew that this perfect past age filled with heroism and adventure never went any further than the movie I was watching or the book I was reading; whereas, all too often, many people who feel this way think there's some perfect age that they wished they could escape back to.  Take a moment to peruse one of those "Life in the Middle Ages" type books, and realize that were you to somehow make it back, you'd probably be dead of cholera, dysentery, and/or plague before the first day was up (perhaps a slight exaggeration on my part...but not entirely off mark).

It's why I've always loved the "Constitutional Peasant" scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) which injected anachronistic political ideals into Arthurian romance just before it shifts to a lengthy derision of those same Arthurian legends (see it HERE ).

In any event, if I were to live in a past age, I'd want it to be the movie version of some past age.  Nowadays, however, there seems to be a need to spice up this age that didn't exist.  And while I can enjoy some steampunk up to a point, and can thrill to the off-the-wall kung fu Native American capers of Brotherhood of the Wolf (Le pacte des loups, 2001), I've never seen it as necessary to make any age with swordplay more interesting.  And now with all the unrelentingly silly retro-tech built into movies like Van Helsing (2004) and Jonah Hex (2010), the slightest hint of it in trailers often makes me queasy, which made today's review quite refreshing...

Apparently aka. Captain Kronos - Ladykiller
Captain Kronos - Vampire Hunter (1974) is largely considered one of the last great films from Hammer Film Productions (The Label has seen a revival in recent years with the release of Let Me In (The 2010 remake of 2008's Let the Right One In) and The Woman in Black (2012)). Hammer was probably best known for the long running reinventions of the early Universal Monsters (Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Mummy) starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee that ran through the 1960's.  Kronos, however, was an original story of a former British military man who's teamed up with a hunchbacked doctor in ridding the countryside of vampires.  Not the traditional bloodsuckers, these vampires suck the life force from young maidens and cannot be killed with the stake through the heart.

"You're eyeliner is smudged."
Kronos stars the popular German actor Horst Janson in the leading role (who, this time around, reminded me more than a little of a Germanic Michael York from the same time period), English heart throb Caroline Munro (star of the unbelievable Italian bizarrity Star Crash (1979) whose review I might have to repost) as the peasant girl who offers Kronos aid and...ahem...moral support, and a cast of familiar character actors from the era.  As I've often espoused with today's comic book movies, the only way to pull off goofy fun like this is to have serious actors.  They can't make a swashbuckling vampire movie into Shakespeare, but they can certainly make you invest in it for an hour and half without feeing ridiculous.
Caroline usually received excellent marks on her only jobskill: looking sultry
For the most part, it's a straight forward affair: girls wander off into the forest to have their life force drained by a cloaked figure(s?), Kronos arrives to investigate, the shady family from the distant castle is revealed, the stakes are raised so to speak, and the fun picks up from there.  Director Brian Clemens, who created the fantastic BBC adventure series The Avengers, does a fine job of keeping the plot popping along while creating a decently foreboding atmosphere.  It's simple. It's direct. It's effective.  And perhaps most importantly of all: it lacks that all too common today terrible tone of irony.  It's never nodding or winking at you while daring you to call it on its bullshit, nor taking said bullshit to atmospheric heights that can't possibly pay off.  In other words, it plays like a lost art.

Now, don't think that means I'm calling it some sort of lost classic, but I am calling it the most enjoyable costume drama with a British officer with a samurai sword fighting soul-sucking vampires in an old castle film I've probably ever seen.  I would certainly hope that you would feel the same.  But I fear that  the old man in me is right when he tells me that a generation brought up on a CGI vampire-fighting Lincoln would merely find it tedious.