Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Movie Orgy (1968-ish)

I've been wrapped up in work lately so I didn't have a chance to write about the grand finale of the Joe Dante series at the New Beverly last week, his 1968 4-1/2 hour program The Movie Orgy, which is nothing less than a deep warm bath in cinephilia. Dennis Cozzalio interviewed Dante and got the best description of how The Movie Orgy came to be. He also goes into great detail about the structure and workings of the 'film'. For me, it was nothing less than pure pleasure, enlightened escapism. I don't think there's any realm of moviedom that I have more fondness for than the sci-fi and horror movies of the 1950s and early '60s, the era of atomic mutants and killer robots in cardboard suits, of Ray Harryhausen and Edward D. Wood Jr., and Dante's film was a near-perfect gratification of that part of my mindbrain. The most satisfying aspect of the whole experience is the occasional recurrence of clips from the 1959 film Speed Crazy, in which a James Dean-ish young rebel, who also happens to be something of a psychopath, constantly repeats the phrase "Don't crowd me, man" as his rallying cry against '50s conformity. Spread out over the course of the film with expert timing, Dante turns schlocky screenwriting and acting into comedy perfection.

At the same time, the whole thing isn't just an exercise in nostalgia (or for people like me, fake nostalgia, since I'm a full generation out of touch) because of Dante's satiric, distanced perspective on the more ridiculous aspects of the clips presented. For every warm embrace of a clip from The Lone Ranger or Attack of the 50 Foot Woman, there's the bitter mockery of a clip from Andy's Gang, an early kids' show starring the raspy-voiced Andy Devine featuring the Lord's Prayer accompanied by the torturous, hallucinatory appearance of a cat and hamster playing a keyboard and drums; or Nixon's "Checkers" speech, bitter fruit to the 1968 generation indeed. The film gives us the kind of experience that I find really valuable: it celebrates both the best and the worst of the Baby Boomer era, giving us the schlock and the cultural detritus and fully embracing it, not with condesenscion when regarding the more problematic aspects of war, racism, sexism, and stupidity, but merely with a sort of detached amazement - this is who we were, and who we are, when showing something like a clip from Dick Clark's American Bandstand - the initial response is to laugh at these geeky white teens, awkwardly hurling their bodies across the dance floor, but Dante holds long enough for us to really look at these youngsters, today at retirement age, and think about the distance of time. I guess Joe Dante probably wasn't intending for someone to have these thoughts, forty years ago when he started putting his clips together, but I guess he didn't need to - when you've got 4-1/2 hours of footage, it's easy to find elements that speak to you.

Monday, April 28, 2008

The Ruins (2008)

Or, "My friends went to Mexico and all I got was this lousy carnivorous plant infection!" It's another tourist-terror movie, but this time instead of the sadistic Europeans of the Hostel movies or the organ-harvesters of Turistas it's a Mayan temple infested with hungry plants, and a group of young American tourists, led by Jena Malone and Jonathan Tucker, stumble into it, only to have the locals box them in, shooting anyone who tries to get away in order to stop the spread of the infection. Assuming that the plant doesn't spread via spores or seeds, it raises the question: why not a fence?

It's a pretty pulpy, straight-forward premise (from the novel by Scott Smith) that leads to a movie that works on a basic, 'what kind of crap is going to happen to happen to these people next?' level, with little space needed for elaboration or explanations. And the movie, directed by Carter Smith, isn't bad, but the filmmakers forgot one crucial element: they forgot to make the movie actually about anything.

Now I'm not asking that the movie layer on an unwanted coat of metaphor or allegory when it works reasonably well as a straight-forward narrative, but even Eli Roth was smart enough to work in a critique of global capitalism into his movies. If you're making a movie about a killer plant infesting a Mayan temple that can mimic the human voice and strip flesh off bones, you need to either add in some thematic resonances, or you need to make it the best, craziest, most suspenseful killer plant movie ever made (I'm calling you out, Day of the Triffids). And unfortunately, The Ruins doesn't do either of those two things and so it floats, unfixed in a larger artistic framework, and only moderately compelling as a roller-coaster ride. Even though there's a fair amount of suspense and the cast is game, it's horror-movie junk food - okay in the moment, totally forgettable afterwards.


Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Wrong is Right (1982) & Horror Express (1973)

Two more movies programmed by Joe Dante at the New Beverly Theater. On Saturday I saw Richard Brooks's Wrong is Right, in which Sean Connery plays a globe-trotting reporter who gets wrapped up in a complicated plot involving the Middle East, spies, terrorist plots to blow up Jerusalem and New York with nuclear bombs, and a President mainly worried about getting reelected. In his program notes, Dante says that when it was released in 1982, "it was roundly dismissed as a confused jumble. From the hindsight of 2008, it looks like the Strangelove of its era." Now I hate to argue with Joe Dante, and I enjoyed the movie, but I've seen Strangelove and this movie, sir, is no Strangelove. There are good things in it - a White House freakshow of self-absorbed losers led by George Grizzard as the President; a bidding war over a pair of suitcase nukes that pits two Presidential candidates against each other (Leslie Nielsen is the other), a network news agency, and a major terrorist (Henry Silva); and a general looseness and sense of '70s-style mayhem.

The problem is that the movie as a whole lacks a coherent throughline. Dr. Strangelove triumphs because Kubrick builds all of his elements into a crashing, controlled joke, without a wasted scene, performance, or gag, all working harmoniously. Network is a closer fit, being a messier movie about a more similar target, but even Network maintains coherence through the force and anger of Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay. Wrong is Right was based on a novel and feels like it wasn't especially well-adapted to the screen, with too many characters and tangents and half-boiled ideas. If I had seen this movie in 1982 with the expectations of a big cast and a major marketing campaign, I'd probably be annoyed at it, but instead, seeing it as a mostly-forgotten cult film, I can appreciate it for what it does get right - the vision of the news media in a symbiotic relationship with political chaos-makers.

Horror Express, on the other hand, is blissfully free from the weight of being politically relevant or important - it's your standard monster movie on a train, elevated by good performances and a unique premise. Christopher Lee gets on the Trans-Siberian Express in 1906 with a fossilized prehistoric man-ape; twenty minutes later, Peter Cushing is asking him, "Are you telling me that an ape that lived two million years ago got out of that crate, killed the baggage man and put him in there, then locked everything up neat and tidy and got away?" To which Lee responds, "That's exactly what I'm saying!" with the total commitment that only a trained British actor can provide in a movie that also includes an alien invader that can drain brains, a Rasputin-esque Russian monk, and Telly Savalas as a scenery-chewing Army captain. It's completely silly and completely entertaining, and it shows that while satire needs to be focussed and lean to work properly, movies that are essentially farcical can be overstuffed and still work just fine.

Wrong is Right: 5/10
Horror Express: 7/10

Monday, April 21, 2008

Two political tidbits

First and more immediately, I'm encouraged by the reports of Jimmy Carter's meetings in Damascus with Khaled Meshal, a leader of Hamas, which has had the result of an unofficial Hamas recognition of Israel's right to exist, which counts as a minor, yet important, diplomatic breakthrough. Conservatives everywhere are lambasting Carter for meeting with leaders of a terrorist organization and giving the impression that the U.S. government is shifting its official policies, but they're forgetting some important things, like the fact that Yasser Arafat and the P.L.O. were also considered to be terrorists (and indeed, rightly so) for years, not recognizing Israel's right to exist until 1988. But that shift led, eventually, to the Oslo accords of 1993 and the current roadmap to peace.

The fact of the matter is that Hamas, like it or not, represents a majority of the Palestinian population (or at least a very sizable portion), and they govern the Gaza Strip; regardless of their tactics, it is currently impossible to make any progress on the Israeli-Palestinian issue without including them. So a backdoor movement via Carter is really the only way progress can be made, officially, further down the road. I expect the next Secretary of State, Democratic or Republican, to make good progress in this area (an official recognition by Hamas of the State of Israel and repudiation of terrorism) once the idiots currently in charge (Bush, Cheney) are gone.

In other news, in last week's Democratic debate in Pennsylvania, I was most struck by this analysis, (sorry, it's a few days old) saying that the mainstream media has by now been thoroughly trained by the right-wing pundits to do their job for them - every time they asked Clinton or Obama a question about 'electability' and "how will you respond to these charges in November?" it's just a convenient shortcut for the GOP. It's the equivalent of having a news outfit asking a candidate, "these stories about your confusion over whether or not you have stopped beating your wife, how do you address them?" I'm sure that if McCain was still debating somebody we'd be getting dumb questions about his age and other such nonissues, too, which just indicates the death of actual political journalism in this country.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Sign of the Cross (1932) & Samson and Delilah (1949)

Two more movies from Cecil B. DeMille. The most amazing thing to me about Samson and Delilah is how completely ignored and forgotten it is today, even though it was one of the biggest hits of the 1940s - imagine if, years from now, The Passion of the Christ or Spider-Man were largely forgotten. Ah, the vicissitudes of taste. In fact, I believe that this movie, alongside Song of the South, is the most popular movie ever made, in a historical sense, not currently out on DVD.

You probably already know the plot, although DeMille has juiced the story up to emphasize the action scenes and the relationship between Samson, played by beefy, just-barely-believeable Victor Mature, and Hedy Lamarr, suitably smoldering. It's a big, dopey movie, marred by a general hokiness and a few scenes that are utterly retarded. DeMille was angry that Mature wouldn't go near the tame lion that he was intended to wrestle with, and you can see why - the scene in which Samson wrestles the beast to death is a mishmash of Mature wrestling with a stuffed dummy and his stuntman's back fighting the real thing. But the movie is compulsively watchable anyway, and builds to a magnificent climax as Samson pulls down the temple of the Philistines, where DeMille really knew how to give his audience what they wanted.
Lamarr's Delilah can be seen as a biblical femme fatale, castrating Samson and then recanting (in scenes not found in the Bible) and paying penance by hanging around in the temple as Samson brings it down.

The Sign of the Cross, meanwhile, is a story of the oppression of the Christian minority during the reign of Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton, in a small but juicy part). You can tell that a group has achieved cultural supremacy when they start to tell stories about themselves as embattled minorities, and so it seems in this case. And yet, despite an storyline with even more schlock and less character development, DeMille still provides a wallop of a third act, giving us a string of horrors in the Colosseum as the Christians are given over to the lions.

It's a movie made before the full application of the Production Code, which means that the violence is unusually explicit (an 'Amazon' decapitates a 'Pygmy' on camera in full view) and the sex is too (Claudette Colbert takes a bath in milk with her breasts threatening to come in full view at any moment). It's trash, but it's sporadically entertaining trash.

Samson and Delilah: 7/10
The Sign of the Cross; 5/10

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Soaring Food Prices

I'm pretty sure stories like this or this one from the Philippines or this one from Bangladesh are exactly what the 'environmental extremists' have been predicting for years: rising costs leading to shortages, leading to social unrest, leading to political instability in parts of the world least able to withstand them.

The articles point out that the problems are being exacerbated by increased spending on biofuels programs, which divert food production towards ethanol production and the like. It's a lot easier for governments to divert subsidies towards this kind of production - it provides the illusion that we're getting our energy from wholesame Midwest farmers instead of crazy Mideast sheikhs - but avoids the real issues of energy efficiency and promoting conservation, which we're going to have to deal with sooner or later.

The Sadist (1963) & The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977)

Right now the New Beverly Theater is running a series of films programmed by director Joe Dante, following on the success of their past series from Quentin Tarantino, Edgar Wright, and Eli Roth. Here's a really good piece on the series.

Tonight I made it over for two rarities. The Sadist is an exercise in making the most on a super-low budget, a real-time thriller set entirely in and around a junkyard somewhere in remote southern California, where a trio of mild-mannered teachers find themselves after their car breaks down on the way to a Dodgers game. After marking time for a few minutes with some efficient, if clumsy, character development, we meet the villain of the piece, Arch Hall Jr. (that's him up top) as Charlie Tibbs, a raving lunatic version of Charles Starkweather, complete with a virtually-mute underage girlfriend. Unlike the sensitive drifter played by Martin Sheen in Badlands, this Charlie is a much less sympathetic character played by a much worse actor, with Hall mugging and screaming his way through the performance. But since this movie isn't trying to be thoughtful or rich in character insight, Hall's awful performance is ultimately a net positive, injecting crazy energy into the film and holding our attention. The movie's five characters plot and counterplot against each other, resulting in a surprisingly strong level of suspense and intrigue, well-shot in black and white by the young Vilmos Zsigmond.

In contrast to The Sadist's zero-budget discipline, Larry Cohen's The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is a sprawling low-budget mess, a sort of third-hand Oliver Stone movie covering Hoover's life from a young, somewhat idealistic G-man in the Coolidge administration to the paranoid monster of the Nixon years, with episodes dealing with Hoover's rise to power, his jealous treatment of popular F.B.I. agents like Melvin Purvis, the illegal wiretaps authorized by Franklin Roosevelt and Bobby Kennedy, and the steps Hoover took that led, in the movie's view, to the F.B.I. toppling the Nixon administration in Watergate.

Only a few of Larry Cohen's movies are as successfully executed as they were conceived, and this is no exception, with a rambling story structure and utterly cruddy cinematography and production design, but the movie has a low-rent, New Hollywood charm, reveling in the freedom of the 1970s to say things that other movies couldn't or wouldn't. At it's best, the movie is just plain strange: A lonely Hoover (Broderick Crawford, in one of his last roles) warns a Stork Club waiter to keep his daughter out of a high school Communist front club, because he doesn't want his favorite waiter to get in trouble; a distracted Bobby Kennedy (Michael Parks) calls Hoover on the phone 'just to see if he's there' and then gets his beagle to bark into the phone, for no reason; and constant jokes made by others about Hoover's alleged sexuality, which is never resolved by the movie. In the end, as with Oliver Stone's Nixon, Hoover is painted as a man of great intelligence and skill who got carried away by the lure of power and the fear of letting go of it, and the movie works as a broad, if sloppy, portrait of a fascinating American, warts and all.

The Sadist: 6/10
The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover: 6/10

Monday, April 14, 2008

Speed Racer promo

I found this on David Poland's The Hog Blog, where he's been a relentless promoter of all things Wachowski for years now, even though he won't admit it.

My favorite element, which hopefully is for real, is the line "He cannot tolerate the shame of defeat". Sooooo Japanese.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) & The Ten Commandments (1956)

I watched The Ten Commandments at Easter and then Charlton Heston died, so I wanted to see the movie that launched him as a star and won Cecil B. DeMille his only Best Director Oscar, 1952's The Greatest Show on Earth.

First, The Ten Commandments, which is a movie that everybody knows even if it's just to check out the parting of the Red Sea on the Sunday night of Easter weekend. Watched from beginning to end it really holds up well, once you get past DeMille's basic hokeyness and the clenched dialogue. Don't try to think of it as a movie attempting to replicate life in Egypt three thousand years ago, but merely as a show, a popcorn movie that just happens to be about awe-inspiring special effects and great men of the past and you're on the right track.

The two elements that really make the movie what it is are Heston's performance, controlled and authoritative; and the score from Elmer Bernstein, fresh off of writing a jazz score for The Man with the Golden Arm, a work about as far as you can get from the bombast of a Bible epic. But Bernstein's music gives the movie a huge amount of power and emotion and helps provide a sense of movement to DeMille's blocky, stiff compositions.

Oddly, one of the weakest aspects of the movie is one of the elements most central, the transformation of Moses from regal Prince of Egypt into just another Hebrew slave when he finds out that he was adopted. From the perspective of character, this should be a charged section of inner growth and development, but in this 3 1/2 hour movie we only get one scene where Heston helps out in the mud for five minutes and from that point on is utterly dedicated to the cause of Hebrew liberation. But then, DeMille was never known for being a psychological filmmaker.

The Greatest Show on Earth is a much sillier piece of work, and I'm sure if the Academy had been able to see into the future they would have waited to give DeMille his Oscars for a couple more years until the more respectable Ten Commandments came along. DeMille's religious epics were always motivated by a desire to give the audience a moral lesson along with the spectacle, but Greatest Show on Earth is all spectacle, all the time, from the rivalry between a pair of trapeze artists who seek to outdo each other with increasingly insane stunts to the climactic train crash that sends lions and clown white makeup flying everywhere. You can also tell from watching this movie that there's a direct line from it to the disaster movies of the '70s, in which a big crowded cast of people have their personal melodramas interrupted by special effects set pieces, all the way up to the likes of The Day After Tomorrow. Heston's character, the circus manager, is exactly the same guy he would play in Airport '75 or Earthquake - the no-nonsense man of action, always on top of things, always barking orders. Here the orders are things like 'trim that elephant's toenails' and 'get that cheating carny out of here' but it's the same persona.

The thing is, even though this movie is overstuffed and underdeveloped and has lines of dialogue like "You're not a man, you've got sawdust in your veins!" and a pretty bad, nervous performance from Betty Hutton as the female lead and the ridiculous appearance of a paralyzed nerve-damaged claw hand after one performer takes a nasty fall, it all still works. Heston holds the movie together, subplots involving Jimmy Stewart (a clown on the run from the law) and the amazing Gloria Grahame (riding elephants in a sassy manner) are entertaining, and the damn tigers and clowns and sea lions keep your attention. So even though DeMille's movies can't be called high art, they work on that basic what-happens-next level of storytelling, and that's nothing to sneeze at. And even though High Noon should have won Best Picture that year, this is a less awful Oscar winner than Crash.

The Ten Commandments: 8/10
The Greatest Show on Earth: 6/10

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Stop-Loss (2008)

Okay, first things first: the fact that most of the Iraq/Afghanistan movies released in the last few years (Home of the Brave, In the Valley of Elah, Lions for Lambs, Redacted, Rendition) have been flops or disappointments doesn't mean that the American public is implicitly rejecting their criticism of the Bush administration's military and foreign policies (the polls on those specific subjects are proof of that) any more than the disappointment of, say, Amazing Grace means that people are now in favor of slavery. The American public is preferring to choose apathy over the tension of current events with their hard-earned movie dollars.

One of the reasons for the lack of interest in these kind of movies is that we're still mired in Iraq. Audiences need time to decompress, and filmmakers need time to gain perspective. Stop-Loss, like DePalma's Redacted, is so in-the-moment, so angry and passionate (in different ways) and so intent on doing something, anything, dammit, to Make A Difference, that good art gets lost in the process. Director Kimberly Peirce makes two crippling mistakes in Stop-Loss: She makes a self-consciously political movie at the expense of characterization and story, and the political points she makes are, in a word, clumsy.

After wrapping up a bloody final mission in Iraq, a bunch of soldiers head back to a homecoming in Texas, only to be met with mental illness (everyone has Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), physical decrepitude (one guy has been blinded and lost two limbs), and, worst of all, the news of forced re-enlistment. Now, the existence of 'Stop-Loss' programs aren't news to me, but when Ryan Phillippe arrives at the movie's titular scene, he basically throws a tantrum, outraged in a way that only somebody who's kind of ignorant about the world around him could be - that's not the character's fault, that's the screenwriters' fault. If the movie ever explained the deeper roots of the military's enlistment problems - our overextended armed forces, our pathological desire to avoid a draft, etc. - it would have provided a useful context for a political discussion and, ideally, dramatic complication. But since Peirce doesn't go there, the effect is to make Phillippe's character look self-absorbed and dumb. Add to that how clumsily she handles the rest of her drama (the scene in which Phillippe visits his wounded, one-armed comrade in a hospital is laughable) and you have a movie that, duh, people aren't going to want to see.

I'm being too harsh, because the movie isn't a total turd - it halfway works thanks to a sense of genuine outrage and frustration, and decent performances - but when you're working with a subject this charged, halfway just isn't enough these days.


Sunday, April 06, 2008

Charlton Heston, 1924-2008

There goes another icon. It's easy now to look at Charlton Heston's clenched-jaw acting style and his histrionics in Soylent Green or The Omega Man and make fun of him, but even though the performances are often hammy and stilted, they still work, they still have an impact on an audience thanks to their power and intensity. Heston came of age as an actor in the pre-Method era and was simply a different kind of actor, one who was best at playing larger-than life icons. Heston's Moses or Judah Ben-Hur or Neville from The Omega Man are big, bold performances driven by strong, broad emotions, and they're great. Nobody else, then or now, could do what Heston did.

Even if Heston had rigid political positions, he was still an advocate for civil rights and against McCarthyism, and he leaves us performances in movies from The Greatest Show on Earth to Touch of Evil to Major Dundee to Earthquake to Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet. I think my personal favorite performance from him would have to be as Taylor in Planet of the Apes, because it's so perfectly iconic, and because it's his most intense, angry slow burn in of career of slow burns. Who doesn't know "Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape!"

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Italian Spider-Man

A true Italian Spider-Man from the period 1972-1984 would have shown naked breasts at some point, but this is still pretty good.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Paranoid Park (2007)

I almost missed this one, almost gone from theaters. My enjoyment of Gus Van Sant's films runs hot and cold. While I like his early work, I have mixed feelings about To Die For and Good Will Hunting, I think his remake of Psycho is a huge waste of time, and I was annoyed by the ponderous experimentalism of Gerry. But in Elephant and Last Days I felt that Van Sant had managed to find a synthesis, taking the real-time minimalism of Gerry and actually giving it a use and a point, watching the simple behaviors of a selection of high school kids and a falling-apart rock star.

In Paranoid Park, based on a novel by Blake Nelson, Van Sant seems to be making a film that combines all the threads of his career: fascination with youth, simple, observational direction, evocative use of music and editing to create moods. The film centers on Alex, a teenage skateboarder in Portland, Oregon, confused by a number of different things: his parents' divorce, his girlfriend's pressure to have sex, and not least of all, the trainyard security guard whose death he may have been involved with.

The greatest success of Paranoid Park is the mood of melancholy nostalgia it evokes for our high school years, a time when everything seems in flux, when one's own identity and worldview are finally forged, and Alex (played by non-professional actor Gabe Nevins) tells everything from his own slightly askew perspective, and the hints about who he is and who he might still be are handled subtly and carefully by Van Sant and cinematographer Christopher Doyle.

Less successful in Van Sant's film world is his depiction of teenage girls, who he doesn't really seem to understand. Elephant was marred by an out-of-tune sequence in which a gaggle of teen girls banter stereotypically about boys and classes over lunch, then head into the girls' room en masse for a group purge. Huh? Maybe in a broader movie, but not one that's otherwise occupied with real-time observational reality. Likewise, Alex's girlfriend Jennifer (former Cindy Lou Who Taylor Momsen) is presented as something of an airhead status-seeker, mostly interested in having a boyfriend for the sake of having a boyfriend, jumping on her cellphone immediately after losing her virginity. It's too bad that a filmmaker of Van Sant's stature would have this kind of blind spot in his body of work, but nobody's perfect.

I'm not sure that Paranoid Park is, as a whole, as fully realized of a film as Last Days and Elephant, with their formal and thematic unities - the narrative of PP seems to start and stutter, the themes of guilt and criminality get left behind, the ending is abrupt - but it is a fascinating and revealing piece of work that deserves to be seen.