Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Happy Holidays

And apologies for not posting more stuff, or more interesting stuff. One of my New Year's resolutions will be to try and get more stuff up on this damn thing more regularly - I mean, I am unemployed for the foreseeable future, so I should be able to, right?

In honor of the season, here's a tidbit of delightful sleaziness:

And here's a talking cat:

I hope everyone out there, whoever you are, is having a fun and productive holiday season.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Rant of the Day

Why is it that, no matter where I go or how much I pay, I can't get a good haircut? They always leave it too long in one part of my head or (and this makes less sense) cut it too short on another part of my head. Doesn't it make sense, from a business perspective, to leave it all a little long, so I have to come back sooner? Jesus, now I wander around looking like a special needs kid for a week until it grows out enough.

Life is tough.

(I've had worse, though. Like the time, four years ago, when I asked for the cut to be 'long on top, short on the sides' and the Armenian Supercuts worker started to just shave off the side of my head to give me the most extreme bowl-cut ever.)

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Twenty-five Best Non-New Movies I Saw This Year

I still have a lot of watching to do before I can come up with a Best of 2008 list, but I'm reasonably comfortable in putting together this list of the best old movies that I saw for the first time this year. I'm especially proud to say thank you to the people at the New Beverly, the Silent Theater, the American Cinematheque, and the UCLA Archives, where I saw a lot of these.

First, in chronological order, the runners-up, numbers 11-20:

Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls, 1948)
Ugetsu (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1953)
Mon Oncle (Jacques Tati, 1958)
The Exiles (Kent Mackenzie, 1961)
Youth of the Beast (Seijun Suzuki, 1963)
The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967)
Don't Torture a Duckling (Lucio Fulci, 1972)
Horror Express (Eugenio Martin, 1973) (watch this from 7:00 to 7:20 please)
The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)
The Human Tornado (Cliff Roquemore, 1976)

And the top ten, also in chronological order:

The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang, 1933) On one level, Lang's film is a critique of the nascent Nazi party taking control of Germany around him, but on another, more fundamental level, it's simply an insane adventure film, with some of the great director's most amazing images and sequences. My favorite image is this mind-boggling bit of nightmare fodder here.

The Earrings of Madame De... (Max Ophuls, 1953) An amazing, lush dissection of the social power networks of love and lust.

Sansho the Bailiff (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1954) Sansho is the bad guy in this movie, a corrupt local Japanese magistrate who causes an immense amount of heartbreak and tragedy for an aristocratic family caught up in the tragedy of war. A total heartbreaker.

Mamma Roma (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1962) Pasolini's best film that doesn't involve coprophagy, this features Anna Magnani at her most volcanic and powerful.

Playtime (Jacques Tati, 1967) This is probably the supreme masterpiece on this list, an expansive vision of the place of man in modern consumerist society - and incredibly funny at the same time.

The Young Girls of Rochefort (Jacques Demy, 1967) A totally joyous, purely entertaining meta-musical filmed in glorious color with songs by Michel Legrand.

Klute (Alan J. Pakula, 1971) The best, most uncompromising Pakula movie I've seen, another modernist vision of society corrupted by money and techology, with an amazing performance from Jane Fonda.

Land of Silence and Darkness (Werner Herzog, 1972) This documentary about the lives of people who are both deaf and blind is all about the final scene, in which a profoundly isolated man, in the background of a shot, bumps into a tree and proceeds to spend a few minutes communing with the universe.

Cannibal Holocaust (Ruggero Deodato, 1980) Yeah, this is an Italian exploitation movie, but don't rush to judgment based on that. It's also a brutal critique of colonialism and one of the most purely misanthropic movies ever made. This one goes all the way.

Rosetta (Jean-Pierre Dardenne & Luc Dardenne, 1999) It's easy to make a movie that critiques capitalism and modern life, not quite so easy to do so in a film centered on a mostly unlikeable female protagonist. The ending is absolutely astounding, a Polanski-esque black joke transformed into something transcendental.

And finally, the five most memorable bad movies I saw this year:

The Children (Max Kalmanowicz, 1980) A nuclear vapor leak causes all the children in a local town to become bloodthirsty zombies, only stoppable when the adults chop off their hands. An excerpt is here.

Mystics in Bali (H. Tjuy Djalil, 1981) In Indonesia, a young woman is researching tribal customs and she becomes the newest victim of the local witch, which means that at night, her head and internal organs lift off of her body to fly around and attack the local populace. See the best parts here.

Raw Force (Edward Murphy, 1982) Three guys from the Burbank Karate Club go on a cruise to east Asia and wind up battling a group of wicked monks and reanimated kung-fu zombies. Also featuring prostitutes, cannibalism, and jade smuggling.

The Carrier (Nathan J. White, 1988) I can't say enough about this movie, which feels like a completely personal, heartfelt expression of an utterly lunatic vision. A young man manages to infect his small town with a curious disease: anytime he touches an object, it becomes infected, and anytime someone else touches it, they start screaming and melting. Small animals can be used to detect the infection, resulting in an insane climactic scene in which two paranoid sects fight a battle for the local cats ("Cats or Death!" one tribal leader bellows) Seriously, look at this trailer and tell me it's not amazing.

Project: Metalbeast (Alessandro DeGaetano, 1995) Pretty bad, but this one involves a werewolf, frozen for decades by Barry Bostwick, which becomes the subject of a government experiment in 'metal skin' for defense purposes, which then results in (surprise) a werewolf with bullet-proof skin. What more do you need?

Monday, December 15, 2008

Stephen King's 2008 Top Ten List

As a big fan of Stephen King, it's always interesting for me to see what he thinks of the world of movies, he's a guy with very regular, everyman tastes that he expresses with great clarity and intelligence, even when I disagree with him, or when it looks like he just flat-out hasn't seen very many movies. Here's his list for this year, if you want all the specifics, but here's the simple top ten too:

1. The Dark Knight
2. Slumdog Millionaire
3. Wall-E
4. Tropic Thunder
5. Funny Games
6. The Bank Job
7. Lakeview Terrace
8. The Ruins
9. Redbelt
10. Death Race

I haven't seen half of these - the only one that I know that I hate is the American Funny Games remake (nobody's perfect).

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Bush's Shoe Attack

Hopefully this is the final punchline to the long, sad, debilitating joke that has been the Presidency of George W. Bush. I mean, it's kind of an appropriately ridiculous and humiliating way to end his term (although to the guy's credit, he has great reflexes and ducking ability). God, it'll be nice to have him finally gone.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Phase IV (1974)

I saw this over the weekend at the New Beverly in a beautiful 35mm print. It's funny how you just flat-out can't appreciate certain things until a later phase in life. Back about ten or fifteen years ago, when I rented Saul Bass's Phase IV, I thought of it as a mildly entertaining man-against-nature sci-fi movie. Watching it this time, my thoughts were something along the lines of, "Holy shit, how do you wrangle an ant and a praying mantis to cooperate in the staging of a f&*@ing tiny action sequence?"

In the post-atomic era, there have been a lot of movies in which humans fight nature-run-amok, but this is one of the few where the creatures (here, super-intelligent ants) are treated more sympathetically than the various human protagonists. There's a scene in this movie where a scientist presses a button and, outside in the desert, a thousand ants are covered in a yellow, waxy, smothering pesticide. Later the scientists use a sonic vibration weapon that causes, from the ants' perspective, the rupture of the San Andreas fault, with tiny rockslides crushing their miniscule bodies. It's all like a teensy version of Saving Private Ryan, complete with the wonderfully ridiculous (but nonetheless, perfectly staged with actual ants) scene in which the itsy-bitsy ant corpses are lined up in a tiny underground morgue.

Obviously, this movie wouldn't have been made without the influence of Stanley Kubrick and 2001, but it still represents a unique vision all the same. Phase IV is the only film directed by Saul Bass, who was mostly famous for having designed the title sequences of Vertigo and Psycho for Hitchcock and The Age of Innocence and Casino for Scorsese, but he was also one of the world's most successful graphic designers, coming up with the logos for United Airlines and AT&T, so it's not really surprising that his one film would have striking, innovative visuals. The above-ground drama is somewhat less compelling, with easy-going young scientist Michael Murphy contending with brusque, all-business scientist Nigel Davenport (he might as well just wear a sign reading "Cold Logic" around his neck) with a local teenage girl hanging around for no good reason - except that her presence allows Bass to indulge in a curious bit of micro-erotica, as the movie's Hero Ant, having escaped from a lab, wanders through her clothing and up and down over the contours of her sleeping body in one sequence.

The movie ends with one of those annoying '70s post-2001 'huh?' endings (pretty much the same ending as Star Trek: The Motion Picture) but this is a film about the cinematic journey, not the oblique destination.


Monday, December 08, 2008

Beverly Garland, 1926-2008

This is the time of the year when any number of talented, hard-working actors vie for awards in classy, glossy studio movies, so it seems appropriate to also remember the career of a talented, hard-working woman who worked in Hollywood for decades but is today best-known for My Three Sons and a handful of early Roger Corman movies - a realm in which good acting is even harder to recognize, when it appears.

I first encountered Beverly Garland in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode/Roger Corman movie It Conquered the World, in which her husband, played by Lee Van Cleef, is helping an evil carrot from Venus try to take over the world. Passionate yet rational, Garland's character proceeds to take matters into her own hands, and marches down to its cave in Bronson Canyon armed with a rifle to eliminate the monster. What follows, while cheesy and ridiculous, is nonetheless a perfectly fine piece of film acting, bold yet committed and firmly aware of the genre and tone around her. You can see bits of her performance in this trailer, at about the 1:15 and 1:40 marks.

I mean, it's easy to look down at this kind of material, but committed acting is what audiences respond to, and if you find yourself suspending your disbelief in this movie, or The Alligator People or Not of This Earth, it's because of the hard work of Beverly Garland.

Rest in peace.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Forrest J. Ackerman, 1916-2008

I've been living in Los Angeles for seven and a half years now, and one of my big regrets is that I didn't make it to the Ackermansion while there was still time. In case you don't know what I'm talking about, the legendary Forrest J. Ackerman, who coined the term 'sci-fi' and set thousands of young minds alight with his Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, transformed his house over the years into a teeming museum of Hollywood memorabilia and props, and would give jokey, pun-laden tours of his collection for tourists and fans. Until, that is, a few years ago, when he started selling it all off in advance of the inevitable, which has now arrived.

So I never got to meet Forrest J. Ackerman, but he had as much influence on the world of science fiction and fantasy literature and filmmaking as anyone in the last century - he was friends with Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen, he inspired Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, and he was basically the spiritual godfather of the modern movie geek.

And now he's gone from us. He'll be missed.