9/13/13- Turns I was right about Daimajin following a formula the last time I wrote about it. In Return of Daimajin, the god/statue is back, this time a “lake god” instead of a mountain’s protector. Once again, it is seeking to protect a family in charge (guess those Japanese still had a thing about “divine right” back in the 60s) and once again it takes out an invader seeking to wrong the people out of greed. And once again, he doesn’t bother showing up until the end when a comely, kimonoed beauty pleads for it. And once again, he basically stomps around for a glorious 20 minutes at the end of the film.
The historical drama part of the story is, like the first one, pretty engaging as it is though, so it ends up being pretty damned entertaining on it’s own with the kaiju-style hijinx being the cherry on top. I’m not sure if maybe the budget went down with this one because while the effects are still pretty good, there are some instances where they just don’t measure up with the first one. There are a couple of moments in which the optical effects reminded me of some of the problems with Godzilla vs. King Kong. While I haven’t watched the final film of the trilogy yet and the mastering didn’t seem quite as good on this one as the first one, I have to recommend picking this set up if you find it inexpensively.
I’m continuing to watch the Universal Sherlock Holmes films on blu ray and The Pearl of Death definitely impresses by being not just a decent entry into the series (Holmes actually gets bested for once), but it also looks pretty great. This must be one of the instances where the UCLA Television and Film archive had access to a pretty clean print.
What surprises me is how the origin of the scripts seems to have little bearing on how good they turn out. This one is based on The Three Napoleons, one of Doyle’s stories. The Scarlet Claw, another top entry, was a new idea. Traditionally, you’d think the best ones would be all from the Doyle stories, but there have been weak instances of both. Just something I was thinking about.
As a bonus, it contains the appearance of Rondo Hatton as The Creeper. And who is that, you ask? Let me answer your question with a question. Have you seen The Rocketeer? Sinclair’s henchman Lothar was a tribute to him. You can also see him in The Brute Man, a film that was featured on Mystery Science Theater 3000. He doesn’t even have a line in The Pearl of Death and for the most part is shrouded in shadow for its running time, but when they finally reveal him, you get to see just how huge he was. I would call this one of my favorites of the series so far.
I’d never seen the film before, but I grew up seeing the furry monster giving a smirking stink-eye from the VHS box in many a video store. And when I had had enough of work last Saturday night, I headed out to catch a late-night screening in Kansas City. Having seen it, I’m sure this was the right choice, as I can’t see there being a better way to see this Reagan-era relic of puppety violence than sitting in the theater with a scratchy 35mm print at midnight.
The movie itself isn’t fantastic by any stretch. It is clearly a Corman-esque attempt to capitalize on the Gremlins phenomenon (and it did so successfully considering there are more Critters films than the franchise that spawned it). Not only that, but it tries desperately to seem associated with the unrelated, in-jokey Amblin universe with a family cat named Chewie and an appearance by ET (in stuffed toy form), among other things.
It’s admittedly pretty entertaining, though seemingly meaner than Gremlins, despite the PG-13 rating. It fit perfectly in the early New Line Cinema oeuvre, back when they were a horror factory and hadn’t “legitimized” themselves with Lord of the Rings and such. The film made me laugh, but I’m not sure whether a few of the things that made me chuckle were supposed to be funny due simply to the period in which the film was made. Is the Bon Jovi-like singer supposed to be making fun of those types of “rockers” or was he actually supposed to seem cool? Those mooks skewed so close to parody anyway that it’s impossible for me to know without having been there. There also isn’t much in terms of recognizable star power. There’s that guy that looks like a rougher Charles Durning. And the mom from ET. And a young Billy Zane in full-on 80s douche mode, complete with little pony tail. I spent most of his screen time resisting the urge to tell him to put a cork in it.
The next night I decided to try out another couple of creature features. First up was Sharknado and, dear God, I knew it would be bad but I was expecting funny bad, not “complete and total incompetence” bad. It does lend itself to an interesting discussion on the nature of “bad” movies, however. Because after that I watched Piranha and while they’re two sides of the same coin, they couldn’t be more different.
The makers of Piranha (i.e. Joe Dante, Phil Tippet, John Sayles, etc.) went in knowing what they were making; a Jaws knock-off that was going to be pretty ridiculous. But they sought to make the best darn movie about killer, genetically enhanced piranahs they could. There’s definitely room for fun in the film, plus the editing is well done and there’s a comprehensible story to follow. The piranah themselves work surprisingly well despite their obvious practical effect limitations. It’s a fun exploitation film that, despite being one of Dante’s first films, has managed to stay popular because it is more than the sum of it’s parts. There’s a reason it’s fondly remembered as one of the best films to come out of Roger Corman’s New World schlock factory.
The makers of Sharknado, on the other fin, are The Asylum. This is the infamous studio that puts out awful knock-offs for clueless idiots to grab without thinking, like Transmorphers and Atlantic Rim. The kind of movies that causes initially excited children to cry the delicious, salty tears of disappointment upon with The Asylum feeds. (I swear to God, it’s gotten so bad that they even had a trailer for a fake Tyler Perry movie.) So you know out of the gate that it will be a terrible movie. But given the name “Sharknado,” one would assume it started out its development tongue in cheek and should be fun in an outrageously stupid kind of way. And it certainly is that. But it’s so ineptly made, that I can only assume they’d gone to film School at Ed Wood Tech. It makes Manos: The Hands of Fate seem like a masterpiece of logical plotting. It’s one thing to make a stupid or strange or over the top movie on purpose. I love a lot of movies that fall under that category. It’s another to make a stupid movie so terribly that it starts to ruin the fun. Sharknado has everything; a script in which main characters die without the viewer ever even knowing their names, incomprehensible editing, stock footage that is completely out of place with the film, the worst CGI you will ever see this side of Birdemic, a disdain for the most rudimentary of even Hollywood action movie physics, a token global warming reference as the reason for everything bad that’s happening… I am very conflicted as far as whether I liked it or not because for me there’s a fine line between something that is accidentally bad because people don’t know any better and something that is bad because they just didn’t care. Sharknado seems more like the latter, and that’s the thing that doesn’t sit well with me. It’s not parody or satire, or even a surrealist exercise in storytelling like Axe Cop. It’s nowhere near clever enough. Yet at the same time, I feel a desire within me to force others to watch this out of disbelief that something this poorly executed exists.
I’m absolutely certain I will not be the only critic to the following SAT comparison:
Alien : Pitch Black :: Aliens : Riddick
Now I haven’t seen the intervening chapter, The Chronicles of Riddick. As best I can understand from this film, it involved him becoming the leader of an interstellar death cult and Bones McCoy discovered guyliner and 80s goth pop. I understand it was quite a change from the original introduction of the character. It’s also been years since I saw Pitch Black, going back to its original theatrical release. But I remember enough of it that I think I can make a decent call when I say that the new Riddick film is very much in the same vein, albeit in an episodic manner, which mixes it up enough to not seem like a direct lift.
Riddick, boiled down to his essence, is basically a pulp character, descending from the likes of Flash Gordon, but with a much greyer sense of whether he ís an actual hero. In many respects, the only thing that differentiates the good guys from the bad guys in pulp fiction is who they’re killing. And if, as the old adage goes, killing is Riddick’s business, then business is good. Since he’s the one the film is named after, it means he’s the one we’re rooting for as he goes through the kills, cheering him on as our gladiator.
Essentially the film is broken into three parts which admittedly mesh much better than they could. After quickly dispensing with whatever it was that happened in the last chapter, the first third or so is a survival film in which Riddick basically fights with nearly everything, as pretty much the entire damn planet is trying to kill him. Judging by responses I’ve heard from friends that have seen Chronicles, it sounds like this may very well be to help endure fans to the character again by getting back to basics after sending his mythology off into the stratosphere. Iron Man 3 did a very similar thing this summer in stripping Tony of his support staff and tech. We find Riddick thriving in the harsh environment, in some cases seeming to enjoy it a bit too much. However, when a biological threat upends the niche he’s carved for himself, he initiates the second part of the film by firing off a distress beacon to bring some mercenaries to the planet, planning to escape with a spacecraft.
Most of the mercenaries are effective if mediocre character actors that do their jobs as fodder for first Riddick and then for the central threat to the film. The exceptions that people will most likely actually recognize are Katee Sackhoff and former WWE Superstar (a term which seems to apply to anyone in the company, like how any woman that makes an adult film is automatically a porn star) Batista.
The good news about Batista is that he actually comes off as pretty funny in the film despite not doing much, simply by playing off the other actors and not having to talk much. This makes me a bit less worried about his role in Guardians of the Galaxy next summer.
Sackhoff manages to put in what I found to be the most fun performance of the film. She’s an absolute anomaly to me; the only woman that seems to get more attractive the butcher she is. I could definitely see her as Ms. Marvel, a bit of casting the internet seems determined to have happen. Sadly it doesn’t seem to be for her acting ability, but rather due to the fact that she matches the short blonde hair of the character’s recent disappointing “PC Wonder Woman” redesign. (I’m a fan of her “Zorro S” black outfit, so I’m biased.)
Vin Diesel, who I almost think just starring in Fast and Furious movies so he can get these movies made, acts like he’s having a fantastic time getting to be in this universe again and as Mary Sue as the character is, he does imbue him with a likability that makes up for it.
By the time the film hits it’s final act, a hard turn into the creature feature that makes it like the first one, it has all sorts of fun going on with the characters and what huge a-holes they are to each other. The mercenary part means they have lots of weapons and they’re generally supposed to be good at putting bullets into things, hence the Aliens comparison.
The key question about the film is, is Riddick fun? It’s certainly not a masterpiece and there are moments that will absolutely make you roll your eyes, even if you’re a fan of this kind of goofy, overblown sci-fi like I am. (I was a fan of John Carter, remember?) But yes, it’s pretty darned fun. I had a good time watching it and it has some wonderfully outlandish stuff in it. So yeah, I recommend it if only because it made me smile.
(Three damns given out of five.)
Who’s that at the door? Why it’s Bryan and Kent with an axe and a barely relevant reference to The Shining! Like blood pouring from an elevator, they fully cover Much Ado About Nothing, The Wolverine, Pacific Rim and Kick Ass 2! We’re back people, and it’s not pretty!
Music: The Aquabats – Stuck In A Movie, The Groovie Ghoulies – Kick-Ass
Facebook: Aisle Of The Damned
I finally got around to ordering The Complete Sherlock Holmes, a set of the 14 films that starred Basil Rathbone as Holmes and Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson. I can absolutely say that Rathbone is my favorite Holmes, even overtaking good ol’ Bandersnatch Cumberbund. After being typecast for years as a fantastic villain in such films as The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Mark of Zorro, he got typecast all over again because he was just so darn perfect as Arthur Conan Doyle’s signature character. (No offense to Professor Challenger, the hairy little bastard.) Unfortunately since they didn’t know what to do with Watson, he became an increasing buffoon. Indeed, Bruce is at once revered and reviled in the pantheon of screen Watsons. On the one hand, he did give an indelible performance as Dr. Watson that actually manages to be endearing on occasion. Mostly because he and Rathbone have an admirable on-screen chemistry. On the other, he set the previously nonexistent template as the “dumbass Watson” that managed to hold on in pop culture long past when it should have considering that’s not the way the character comes across in the original stories.
The main thing is simply that these are, for the most part, great films that manage to entertain. The first two in the set, The Hound of the Baskervilles and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes are from Fox and they’re the only two that have not been restored by the UCLA film preservation department. Of the two, Adventures is rougher. While the image is sharp and it’s better than you’ll probably ever see again, there’s more than a handful of film defects. Scratches, dirt and God knows what else are so prevalent, that they’re pretty damned prevalent. What, you expected a humorous metaphor? It’s bizarre that Baskervilles was the first Holmes film to be set in the Victorian period. It’s even stranger to think that at the time the film was made, it was less than 40 years off the time that the film actually took place. But that only lasts for the first two films. Of the Fox films, Baskervilles is probably my favorite.
After that the Universal films kick in and we get to see something different and awesome; Sherlock Holmes fightin’ the Nazis! Indeed, part of what made Stephen Moffatt try setting his Sherlock series in the present day is the fact that it’d been done before. While there are definitely some Victorian stylizations made (horses occasionally appear, for example) and some of the stories are based on the original Doyle works, they take place in the era of which they were filmed and the first two of them, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror and Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon, are completely enveloped in WWII. In these, as well as Sherlock Holmes in Washington, Holmes almost seems to be as much spy as sleuth. Eventually they do go back to being the kind of mystery you would expect to see Holmes in and the last one I’ve watched within the set so far, The Scarlet Claw, is an excellent original story of a murderer in Quebec as Holmes plays ghostbuster.
I’ve been mainlining these films like black tar heroin since my set arrived, probably in part because they are all only between an hour and eighty minutes long. Even the elaborate Fox pictures manage to move at a good clip, but the Universal films were considered to be high-profile b-pictures and are the shortest of the bunch. They are obviously cheaper, but some of them certainly manage to still put a lot of great atmosphere into the proceedings. The best Holmes movies from this era definitely make use of noir elements with their slightly stylized sets and their dark visuals. Of course the way it turns out, the best of the movies seem to be the ones in the worst shape. Scarlet Claw especially has some moments, most of which I assume happen around reel changes, that look like the film was attacked by shapeless black dots. In an introduction on the first disc to head off any complaints, the fella in charge of the restoration of the films, saving them from oblivion in some cases, says that they used the best elements available to them at the time. Some of them are 16mm blow ups simply because that’s all they could find. Some of them, like Washington and The Spider Woman, look pretty great for what they are. I mean, c’mon. Universal never intended for these to stand the test of time. That’s why they sold the rights to them of to another company and a few of them weren’t even kept under copyright. It really is a testament to the enduring power of the films and to Rathbone that many of them became late-night classics, showing on local channels like the Universal monsters series did. One thing the set does that I, as an anal bastard, really appreciate is restoring the Universal logo and in some cases even reattaching short PSAs from World War II that ask theater audiences to buy war bonds. Just one of those little touches that really shows they put an effort into these films. I can’t see there being a better release of these films and if you like them, just get the set.
On Saturday I made a snap decision to head to Kansas City to see an afternoon screening of The Iron Giant and man am I glad I did. Even though it’s on DVD I haven’t watched it in years and it was my first chance to see it on the big screen since I saw it twice during it’s initial release; once alone and the second time dragging my college buddy Joe and his brother to see it. So I think I accounted for about 10% of it’s total box office, as badly as Warner Bros. sold it back in the day. Given the fact that the visually arresting cult film still hasn’t found its way to blu ray despite it being directed by Brad Freakin’ Bird (his real middle name), the guy behind The Incredibles and Mission: Impossible 4, f’gosh sakes, shows they still don’t know what they have in their hands. I was at a Saturday matinee of a 15-year-old film that flopped, and it was a full house. And I only saw one kid in the audience. That should tell them something. I shouldn’t need to sell the movie to you. At this point, I don’t know what I would tell you that fans haven’t gushed about for the last decade and a half.
What I really loved about the screening is the amount of delighted tittering that came out during the credits when Vin Diesel was credited as the voice of The Giant. I have to wonder how many people never realized he was the throat behind the gravel. It is the reason I was championing him as the voice of Groot in Guardians of the Galaxy. I won on that one. Not so much on Bradley Cooper as Rocket Raccoon. I actually am a big fan of Bradley Cooper. I think him being dropped from Alias was when it started to peter out. I loved him as Face in The A-Team. He was great in The Hangover and Wet Hot American Summer. But he basically has two modes; super nice guy and smarmy asshole. And Rocket is neither of those things. I guess he could prove me wrong, but I was really hoping for David Tennent or even Jason Statham. I’m sure part of that comes from the fact that the Marvel Vs. Capcom 3 game has linked him to a cockney accent for the rest of my association with the character. I suppose it only has me so riled because every other casting decision has either been unexpectedly inspired or highly intriguing. Guess we’ll see. I think it’s the Marvel film I’m looking forward to most in Phase II. Aside from maybe the second Avengers.
9/4/13- Calloo, callay! Shout Factory’s blu ray of Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Movie came out yesterday. FINALLY. The only MST3K product that can really be released in hi-def (since everything else was filmed on standard def video), I was hoping we’d get this for a long time and yes, it looks great. It is absolutely worth getting. The stuff that actually was filmed by Best Brains featuring the cast looks pretty pristine and while I wouldn’t want to actually buy a blu ray of This Island Earth that looks the way it does in the film, it’s perfect for the transfer. It looks like a slightly beat up, faded print, just like you’re watching a revival screening in a theater, so I don’t know what else you could possibly ask for. As much as I appreciate Rifftrax Live or Cinematic Titanic, this is the closest you will pretty much ever come to a live version of MST3K with the puppets. (And the season 5-7 cast.) Could the movie be better? Absolutely. It’s actually pretty amazing it came out as well as it did given how much they were interfered with. As it is, it’s consistently funny throughout, has a fantastic opening (“Look at that. Breach hull, all die. Even had it underlined.”) and it serves as a great primer for someone that has never seen the show before. I was one of the few people lucky enough to see it during it’s theatrical release and I can assure you that it absolutely slayed 16-year-old me.
The extras are one of the reasons this is worth an upgrade. You get an EPK from Grammercy about the “making of” (which is about the only thing they ever did to sell it) and a brand new “making of” featurette from Shout’s frequent collaborator for the TV sets, Ballyhoo. You get to hear the real poop about how working with the Universal executives was basically like having a red-assed baboon come into a room and tell you that you weren’t doing a good job of being a human. There’s also a little bit about This Island Earth, but the true gem of this is over twenty minutes of deleted or extended scenes, including extended riffing sequences (with some different quips, no less), an entire host segment that was cut involving a meteor shower and an alternate ending with “Uncle Scrotor.” This is definitely one of my must buys for the year. And it’s actually at a good price. Shout has done the film just as proud as the rest of the catalog titles that they are just crushing. Between the 80s horror films, the Corman titles and the genre films they are putting out, they’re sort of like the Reverse Criterion. Whereas Criterion releases tons of arthouse films but throw in a few fun genre films here and there, Shout releases a few arthouse pieces in addition to the plethora of b-movies they deservedly treat like genuine classics.
9/6/13- I finally got to sit down with Yocum again and he decided I needed to see Jack Arnold’s The Mouse That Roared, a Peter Sellers comedy from the ’50s where he shows how Eddie Murphy’s been chasing him his whole career (though it seems pretty obvious he’s completely given up when you look at his output over the last couple of decades. Pluto Nash did terrible things to that man.) Sellers plays three different roles in the film including the protagonist, the Prime Minister and the country’s Dutchess. It’s a damn good film that’s held up reasonably well. There’s some Cold War stuff inside that is more fragrantly cheesy than a block of Muenster, but most of it is so over-the-top that it still manages to land. And in the current climate of nigh-automatic interventionism with the US military, it could be remade with some minor tweaking to reflect current foreign policy with respect to the Middle East. (Though the tiny Western European mini-state with it’s Franco-British culture is a far cry from the countries we’re dealing with.) The thing is, politicians don’t tend to change over generations and the various absurdist applications of national alliances, economic prospects of foreign aid, diplomacy or a lack thereof and European government structure that attempts to balance democracy with tradition are all things that still seem to have just as much relevance today.
There’s a romance subplot that practically announces itself with semaphore flags, but still manages to seem to come out of nowhere. However, Jean Seberg is a knockout despite (or perhaps because of) her late-50s pixie haircut. And checking out her Wikipedia entry… wow. Didn’t see that coming. I had a little big of a nerd out when I saw William Hartnell was in it as well. For those who are unfamiliar with him, he’s the first Doctor from the BBC’s Doctor Who back when the show started in 1963. Back when the Doctor had more “Get off my lawn!” in him. Maybe they’ll finally get back to that with the new fella.
I’ve also been looking at some of Guillermo del Toro’s films again since I liked Pacific Rim so much. I watched Hellboy a while back and the other night I finally rewatched Hellboy II: The Golden Army for the first time since the initial release in theaters. As much as I like the first film and as much as the lame dismissal of Agent Myers bugs me (yeah, the hand-picked successor to Dr. Broom just gets sent off to Antarctica) I have to say that Hellboy II is definitely the better film. (Oh yeah, and as cool as Doug Jones is, I missed David Hyde Pierce doing Abe’s voice.) While it certainly has all the greatness of the comic, it manages to also somehow be pure, unfiltered del Toro in a manner that I remember matching up surprisingly as a lighter vision with the darkness of Pan’s Labyrinth coming out around the same time.
The move to a more “magical” storyline works surprisingly well and the performances are pretty great all around, even from Seth MacFarlane as Johann. What surprises me is that as much as they seem to be trying to set up Jeffrey Tambor’s Manning as the thorn in Hellboy’s side, it really seems to stem in the opposite direction. Tambor manages to make his character sympathetic because of how big a pain in the ass Hellboy has to be.
8/31/13- So turns out Ip Man is a pretty great chop socky flick. I should have known since it has Donnie Yen (aka Iron Monkey), but I hadn’t really paid attention to it before. It languished on my Netflix queue for a while. (“It’s in my Netflix queue,” is the new way of saying, “I’m never going to get to it, but I want you to leave me alone about it.”) After a coworker recommended it to me, it pushed me to finally give it a go and after the streaming finally stopped sucking and the picture got halfway decent, I enjoyed it a lot. Sammo Hung’s fight choreography is superb with the misses and the defense being as exciting as the punches and kicks that land in the fights. The story is that of one of Bruce Lee’s masters whose city in China was occupied by the Japanese army in World War II. They took his home (he was reasonably wealthy) and, after shoveling coal for a while, he ends up in some fights arranged by the Japanese to test their soldiers and beat up on some of the home team. The general that is in charge of them looks strangely Caucasian to me, but that could just be my ignorance. His gun-happy toadie, meanwhile, skews so far to the other side that he looks like he stepped out of Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips. (You can find it on youtube. There’s no way in hell you’re going to get an official release from Warner Bros.) I have seen historical martial arts epics before, but setting one during dubya dubya two is a new one for me and it made for a nice change. It sucked me in pretty well and I definitely recommend it.
9/2/13- I’ve spoken on the podcast about my love of Joe Dante’s Gremlins 2 before and how it’s an insane parody of the first film that really deserves to be seen by more people. It does finally seem to slowly be getting the reputation it deserves as it has found champions in the online critic community. I got to see it on the big screen for the first time when the Drafthouse put on a near-midnight showing of it on 35mm on Saturday night. It took a while for them to get the focus right and they had it incorrectly framed (there were visual gags being cut off the sides that I remembered from the blu ray) but it’s so great seeing it on the big screen. As much as I love a lot of his work, this one might be my favorite film of Dante’s and the big gags play better big, as obvious as that would seem. Sure it’s goof for the entirety of its length, but around the hour mark it completely goes off the rails and rids itself of any pretense of not being an complete cartoon. Of course, I mean that in a good way. It’s a shame his Termite Terrace film about the animation department at Warner Bros. in the 30s and 40s never got off the ground because the dubya-bee wanted to focus completely on Space Jam. I’ll never understand how Warner Bros. is so completely weird about exploiting its catalog in multiple directions at once. Their movie department is notorious for pushing around their TV/animation divisions when it comes to their superheroes. Which is the reason you never got a good shot of the Superman suit in Smallville despite having to wait 10 years. And why Bruce Wayne never appeared on that show. And the reason the Joker and every other “Batman” villain disappeared from Justice League for the end of its run. And on and on. Do they really believe having two wildly different projects featuring a brand so all encompassing as the Looney Tunes would have caused confusion? I mean, cheezus, The Japanese will put out three versions of the same property at the same time if they think it will work and it doesn’t hurt anything. I guess they just trust the public to be smart enough to get it.
Speaking of Dante, I threw in the Shout! Factory blu ray of Rock N’ Roll High School from their Corman collection. Allan Arkush is the director, but Dante also stepped in to do some of it and his fingerprints are all over it. And given it’s a z-budget picture from the most notoriously cheap production house in Hollywood history (until Asylum came along to make the easily duped consumer suffer with direct-to-video titles like Transmorphers), it looks pretty good. Sure it’s not perfect. There’s some issues with a little dirt and scratches. And since I’ve been spoiled by blu being, up to this point, a cinephile format that typically seems to really pay attention to technical aspects I’ve gotten to be a completely anal purist about things like OAR which should be 1.85 for RNRHS but instead is presented in “full frame” for widescreen TVs, AKA 1.78, but complaining about that probably makes me seem slightly insane. Which I am. But let’s move on. The great thing about Rock N’ Roll High School is that it does to teen movies what The Ramones did to pop rock. For all the talk about being the founders of punk, what The Ramones really did was completely reject all the overblown aesthetics of 70s arena rock which had turned it into pretentious nonsense. They stripped it down and went back to the roots of 50s and early 60s rock and roll. They then played it louder and faster and made it funny, self-deprecating and a bit anarchic. Rock N’ Roll High School takes the skeletal remains of the ultra-popular, mass-produced teen films of the same era about kids rebelling against authority and generally just wanting to be kids without being hassled and turned it punk: louder, faster and funnier. Sure PJ Soles’ Riff Randell (“Rock and roller!”) isn’t the typical punk according to the people that deride the character (one of my official movie crushes) and the movie in general as being too old-fashioned. Part of that is because they’ve been conditioned by mass culture to think anyone who likes punk music has to fall completely into an empty cliche of leather, piercings and poorly-thought out political beliefs that somehow think socialist-style collectivism is part of an anarchist worldview. Ironic, no? Meanwhile, I love punk music and I’m as far away from that as most people could be. But people have always defined niches by the boxes they’re put into by mass media that are usually only one-dimensional sketches. Abbey on NCIS remains just about the only goth character on TV that actually seems halfway like the perky, humor-loving goths I knew in college that met for pizza every week. Riff, despite not being punk enough for some, manages to get the whole school dancing to The Ramones’ Sheena is a Punk Rocker, takes a chainsaw to her permanent record, wears whatever the hell she feels like, gets her stuffy music teacher into The Ramones by getting him to go to a concert and… oh yeah, BLOWS UP HER SCHOOL. All of which strikes me as more punk than shaving your hair into a mohawk and quoting the Dead Kennedys.
9/3/13- One of the many film series I’m making my way through is the Bond franchise. At least the early Connery/Lazenby era before Roger Moore completely ruined them. Basically I’m going through the excellent MGM remasters one at a time catching the ones I’ve missed. And for the most part they do look pretty amazing. I still will put Goldfinger against just about any other film in my collection. The latest one I watched was Thunderball. I’ll admit, part of the reason I’ve missed this one so far is because of its reputation for being a step backwards towards the gadget-obsessive franchise it became. Turns out that’s true. It’s also overly long. But I found it to be much better than I’d been led to believe, though now I know where a lot of the direct parody in the first Austin Powers is from. Despite the fact that he has a couple of moments at the spa that are kinda rapey (I guess “it was the 60s” is supposed to serve as an excuse) Connery really was the best Bond. And, funnily enough, like Daniel Craig, he’s actually kind of a crappy spy. Everyone knows who he is, which seems pretty counterintuitive. And they both lose way more often than they win. But because the damage is always towards side characters, they manage to get away with it. And boy is there more damage and death and violence from Bond in this one, including stabbing a guy in the eye with a harpoon. How cool is that? But as for the film, I actually thought all the underwater stuff that people gripe about was cool. The effects work was pretty great and that title sequence was fantastic. It’s no wonder everyone chases Maurice Binder, but never manages to top him. The music is pretty darn good. The cinematography is excellent and the franchise made the move to widescreen extremely successfully. The visuals sort of perfectly capture a middle ground, using eye-popping color choices, but not going to far as to make it the kind of bizarre pop-art artificiality that took over. The one big issue with the film that really bothered me is that it seems to be sloppily edited. Sometimes scenes change in such a way that they cut off what the characters are saying and it’s just weird. Up next: You Only Live Twice, which seems to really divide people. So bring it on.
8/25/13- Had a couple of great nights this week and watched a lot of movies. Almost too many. First off, for the second time in the last couple of weeks I watched the first two-thirds of Edgar Wright’s Cornetto trilogy. I’ve written and spoken a lot about these films in the past, so I don’t particularly feel the need to expound upon them even further at the moment, aside from saying that despite their differences, they really are phenomenal as a body of work and a uniquely accessible look at American popular culture through the eyes of Britain (much like Spaced often was.) One could probably blame Shaun for the resurrection (pun intended) of zombie films over the last decade, but only the same way people like to blame Star Wars and Jaws for those attempting to ape their success instead of putting a new twist on an old formula like all three of those films did.
I had planned on attending the trilogy screening at the Alamo Drafthouse in KC, only to find that the only reason it said it wasn’t sold out was that there were a couple of handicapped-designated seats left. After briefly considering renting a wheelchair and claiming to have “entitlitus” like Ronnie Dobbs, I instead broke out my blu rays again. It was still a great time because I had some great company, Jade, a girl I’ve known for a while and have wanted to spend more time with. We got some Glory Days pizza, had some ice cream on the way to the theater and hit The World’s End to finish out a charming night. Definitely one of the best Thursday evenings I’ve had in a while.
The next night I hit up another edition of Cinema A-Go-Go (“Brought to you by KPR and The Retro Cocktail Hour.”) This edition brought a couple of greasy with cheese Italian superhero flicks from the so-called swinging ’60s. I’ve seen some of these types of films before. CAGG has shown films like Diabolik, Seven Golden Men and Super Argo before, while Mystery Science Theater also threw some stuff at us like Danger! Deathray, which I think may have been edited by a four year old. And they all have the same jazzy music, like Henry Mancini on anabolic steroids. Thanks to the aforementioned Deathray, I now find myself automatically inserting the words “Watermelon Man” into a good many of their scores. First up was Argoman: The Fantastic Superman. And he’s a total wanker, for the record. Argoman is a distinctly wonky bit of fluff in which the characters all seem to be wearing cheaper versions of outfits off the set of Batman. (The Adam West version, notch.) The henchmen were attired in a way that made me remark, “She’s got an army of Die Fledermauses!” It’s also obvious that the filmmakers had seen Thunderball and said, “We can make this look WAY more stupid.” Most interestingly (and the thing that got the most laughs) is that Argoman is a telekinetic that loses his superpowers for six hours after having sex. No, I’m not making that up. He also loves to throw away guns after using them for no particular reason, despite assuredly having more ammo in them. While he’s set up as a hero, he’s also a master criminal that loves the thrill of stealing the world’s greatest treasures. As you do.
Kriminal is not set up as a hero, however. While the filmmakers obviously expect the audience to root for him, he has little redeeming value beyond being super quick on his feet to avoid the law. While his signature is wearing a reverse-skeleton costume, he spends a surprising amount of time walking around in stylish bachelor wear. And of course he seduces every woman he comes across because apparently women simply had sex with anything that moved. Talk about your free love. While his costume and some other oddities like the inappropriate use of a kettle drum in the soundtrack helped supply the kind of goofy energy the crowd was looking for, it was actually the better of the two movies by far in terms of quality and plot. In the end, it is fun watching this creepy dude using his brain to fool both the law and the criminal element for his own gain. It’s essentially a heist movie boiled down into it’s essentials. Instead of a team of guys trying to pull off a big score, it’s one man against the world and it works. Of course the super-villian subgenre has never caught on in America the way it did over in Europe where these characters have their own comics and films. Americans are OK with anti-heroes, but we tire quickly of outright bad guys in most cases. Every time The Joker has gotten his own title from DC, you’ll notice it hasn’t lasted very long. But that might be changing. Breaking Bad has been a pretty beloved TV show and it’s about a character becoming a remorseless drug kingpin. So while the show may not have gained the love it has if it had started out with him being evil, shows like that and The Sopranos do indicate that America is becoming more and more tolerant of morally complex or bankrupt leads in entertainment, so long as they’re compelling. I’ll leave it to the pundits to decide if this is due to the moral degradation of America or the improvement in pop culture storytelling that has mostly taken place in the field of television. I just find it interesting. And it’s a fun button to push and see what people say.
8/30/13- Moving on, I finally finished the Lone Wolf and Cub series with White Heaven in Hell. Unlike the other films, this one took a bit of a weird turn into what is almost “supernatural,” if you want to call it that. First off, it really focuses on him and his one-man war against that darned Yagyu clan that framed him so they could take over as the Shogunate’s executioner for the first time since early on in the series. But it also brings on a legendary “spider tribe” that can dig through the earth like moles in a completely unrealistic manner. But it does help make them creepy so when Itto turns the tables on them, it is actually pretty great. Though when he finally comes up against a hundred guys at the end of the film in what looks like it is supposed to be the final showdown, it looked like they were finally going to put some closure on the story, but I guess I was asking too much. I mean, they had SIX MOVIES to do it. And instead his arch enemy goes dashing through the snow declaring that Itto will meet his end at his hand. Really? WHEN. Aaaaaaargh. Talk about a limp ending to an awesome series. I hope someone gets hold of this series that knows what to do with them because, dang it, it needs to get a proper release. One that doesn’t make it look like it was filmed with Vaseline on the lens.
As I finished that series, I started another from the land of the rising sun. Daimajin is a trilogy that came out in the mid-60s that managed to somehow combine kaiju films with historical dramas. I’ve only watched the first one, but it was surprisingly good. It boils down to this; in fuedal Japan, a no-account ronin something or other pulls a coup and takes over a village. He then proceeds to be a complete butthole. Meanwhile, one of the guards manages to escape with the “royals'” two young children and, with the help of his aunt, hides with them for ten years on a ‘haunted’ mountain where a stone statue guards the evil “majin” that lives in the mountain and causes earthquakes. And at a certain point after the crap hits the proverbial fan, the statue comes to life and effs the evil leader’s ess up. And at one point I found out that the Japanese were into crucifixion. Didn’t know that one. And there’s a point in the rampage of what is referred to confusingly as both the Mountain God that they pray to and the majin they fear (the hell?), that the statue does something that had me saying, “Are they going to… no way… yep, they totally are.” Considering the blu ray set comes from bargain house Mill Creek, the same company that released the (surprisingly badass) 90s Gamera films, it actually looks pretty darn good. Certainly the best that we’ll likely ever see them. I’m looking forward to seeing the next two, but I get the feeling they’re gonna follow a pretty rigid formula. I’ll keep you apprised, true believers.
To completely change gears, can I just say how sick I am of theater advertising? I mean, I used to look forward to trailers. And every once in awhile we get an awesome one. But before seeing You’re Next earlier this week I counted seven of them. SEVEN. Not counting all the “pre-show entertainment” and the multiple plugs for the theater itself. The Regal Cinema that I usually end up going to because it’s the only game in Lawrence (for non-arthouse stuff, anyway) has continued the downward slide of the Hollywood chain they were bought from. See, there had been an uptick in the number of trailers over the years, sometimes to ridiculous lengths. (I remember how the midnight showing of Return of the King, already an incredibly long movie, began about 30 minutes late because of all the advertising and trailers the Manhattan, Kansas theater had attached to it.) Since the theater went digital, it’s been completely whacked in terms of advertising and trailer overload. The most you ever need to show before a movie is three. Maybe four. And theaters like Liberty Hall, The Alamo Drafthouse and the Warren chain (at least last time I was there) are theaters I applaud for not making me sit through at least fifteen minutes of ads before I see a movie I paid for a ticket to, even if I don’t get there early. If I wanted to pay to watch advertising, I’d get cable.