Sunday, February 8, 2015

LIZABETH SCOTT (1922-2015) - A Tribute
And farewell to the Golden Lady of film noir. No offense to any other actress out there, or up there (or down there), but, for me, if there was one actress who represents the film noir ideal, it's almost certainly Lizabeth Scott.
Let the film titles speak for themselves, like a rogue's gallery roll call of noir themes and emotions...The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946)...Dead Reckoning (1947)...Desert Fury (1947)...I Walk Alone (1948)...Pitfall (1948)...Too Late For Tears (1949)...Dark City (1950)...The Company She Keeps (1951)...Two of a Kind (1951)...The Racket (1951)...Stolen Face (1952)...Bad For Each Other (1953).

Oh sure, she did films in genres other than dark dramas, like Scared Stiff (1953) with Dean Martin, Jerry Lewis and Carmen Miranda, or Loving You (1957) with Elvis. But that touch of noir often crept in no matter the genre, as it did in the western Silver Lode (1954), in which she co-starred with those other frequent visitors to the Dark City, John Payne and Dan Duryea. You could take the girl out of the noir, but it was hard to take the noir entirely out of the girl.
Part of that was, to be sure, The Company She Keeps  - or kept, anyway. Lizabeth Scott hung out with a tough crowd, co-starring with actors like Humphrey Bogart, Dick Powell, Dennis O'Keefe, Edmond O'Brien, Robert Ryan, Robert Mitchum, Raymond Burr, and William Talman. She also did multiple stints with the aforementioned Dan Duryea, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster and Charlton Heston. In a short, compact career, Lizabeth Scott fought as a heavyweight.

Born in the decidedly unglamorous Scranton, Pennsylvania, and gifted with the less than marketable name of Emma Matzo, the woman who became Lizabeth Scott spent a more than solid decade blazing through Hollywood like a platinum comet. Then, for all intents and purposes, she walked away from it all, leaving behind a legacy that is as much a tribute to her as it is a treasure for film fans.
Scott was sometimes tagged as being nothing but a knockoff of Lauren Bacall, which, in my opinion, is a false premise. Were there some similarities between the two actresses? You bet. But, if anything, Scott proved herself to be even more distinctive than Bacall, if not as critically acclaimed. Those eyes, that voice - there's no mistaking them. Bacall may have known how to whistle, but Scott had her hands down when it came to whispering.

Two of my favorite Scott films put her in very different roles. In The Strange Love of Martha Ivers, she is not only sensitive, but also very sympathetic, leaving the villain's role to Barbara Stanwyck. But then, in Too Late For Tears (which I got to see in its restored glory on the big screen last year), she is every bit the money-hungry, heartless femme fatale, with a character so hard she makes her creepy co-star Dan Duryea look sympathetic.

Which is to say, she had range. She also clearly had guts, brains and ambition. Sprinkle on a little luck, and goodbye, Scranton!
And now it's the big and final goodbye. Hopefully her passing will inspire someone, somewhere to put together a Lizabeth Scott film festival. It would be one hell of a lineup.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

THE DEAD 2 (2013) - A Review
We ended the year by finally getting to see the Ford Brothers' sequel to their excellent 2010 zombie masterpiece, The Dead. This was a film we'd been anxious to see, being that we had loved the first film.
So, it is with a heavy heart that I have to report that this film is, sadly, not nearly as good as the previous instalment. Mind you, it's not a disaster, but it was something of a disappointment. Of course, given just how right the first film was, it was a difficult task to match it, yet alone exceed it. But it is too bad that this falls so short of even equaling The Dead.
This sounded so promising. The first film had been (as mentioned in my earlier review) a great inversion of the classic Night of the Living Dead (1968). The Dead told the tale of a man lost in the wild and wide open spaces of Africa when a zombie epidemic breaks out. The Dead 2 seemed like it would in turn be somewhat of an inversion of the first film, moving the action from the sparsely populated African savannas to the densely populated Indian city of Mumbai. That seemed like a good sign, showing that the Ford Brothers, though making a sequel, weren't simply going to be doing a remake of their original film.
And this isn't just a remake of the first film - but it comes perilously close at times. It takes a long time for the lead character, Nicholas (Joseph Millson) to make it from...the sparsely populated Indian desert to Mumbai, where he's headed in the hope of saving his pregnant girlfriend, Ishani (Meenu).

So, while this is technically (and geographically) a different picture, it's also fairly familiar.
It also has a great deal more dialogue than the first picture, which went for great stretches without anyone saying a word. The Dead showed the Ford Brothers to be creative and capable storytellers and filmmakers. The Dead 2 shows them to be not quite so capable when it comes to crafting a strong and wordier script. Much of the dialogue is fairly hokey and hamhanded exposition and/or backstory, sounding more like rough notes for the story than it does a finished script. That being the case, and being that this film has more talk and less action than the first one, the deficiencies are hard to miss.
I think the film is also saddled with one too many "audience identifiers" for the leading man to handle. Having him rushing to Mumbai to save his pregnant girlfriend would be one thing; having him pick up a street-smart orphan boy en route to Mumbai would be another. Having both dumped on him seems like warm and fuzzy overkill, and only serves to bog the story down. A film that could have been a fairly lean and mean thrill ride instead makes frequent stops for unnecessary heartwarming moments. Not to be too obvious, but, this is a zombie film, right? Are so many hugs and poignant pauses really necessary?

Having said all that, let me say a little about what I liked in the Dead 2. For starters, Meenu is very good and believable as the leading lady. She is attractive, but not all Bollywood glammed up. The zombies, when they come, are still slow and creepy, and the make-up effects here are top-notch. And, as in the first film, the location shooting can't be beaten. (The DVD contains some behind-the-scenes discussions with the Ford Brothers about the particular difficulties they faced with shooting this on location. Some of those difficulties very clearly influenced the look and feel of this film. I don't usually get that interested in the behind the scenes stuff, but for this film, it's very helpful context to have.)
I would also still say that the Ford Brothers are more than capable storytellers and filmmakers. Absolutely. But, moving forward, they might well benefit from some outside collaboration on their scripts, particularly the dialogue. If they keep this series going - something I certainly wouldn't object to - and if you look at a map of the world, going in a fairly straight line from Africa to India puts a potential next stop in China. That would be interesting. Or you could turn northwest, and have a zombie outbreak in Pakistan or Afghanistan, if the Ford Brothers really want to double down on difficult location shooting.

Oh, yes, one more thing by way of a request/suggestion (a requestion) for the Fords. If you are going to keep making these films, and if they are going to continue to be set in places inhabited mainly by people of color, could you please, please dispense with having the obligatory white male lead? I can buy into a zombie epidemic; I can't buy into the notion that the only heroes in the world are white guys - and I am a white guy.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

THE BABADOOK (2014) - A Review
So we went from seeing a not so good movie the day before (The Interview), where the show was sold out and then some, to seeing a much better film (The Babadook) where we were literally the only ones in the theater. Yes, my wife and I had our own private screening. Hopefully business will pick up, because, imperfect though it may be, The Babadook certainly deserves to be seen.

Here's a film that's in a bit of a bind, though, audience attracting-wise. It's being marketed as a horror film, which, in a sense, it is. But it's actually more of a dark drama, with the horror coming from the all-too-common terrors of mental illness and family dysfunction. If you take the single worst moment of stress, frustration, exhaustion, anger and loneliness that every parent must have felt at some time, and extend it out over 90 minutes, then you probably get something like The Babadook.
Essie Davis plays widowed mom Amelia. Noah Wiseman is her seemingly troubled son, Sam. Her late husband died in a car crash while driving Amelia to the hospital while she was in labor. She hasn't been the same since, and hasn't been able to move on - especially since Sam is quick to talk to anyone and everyone about how his dad died while driving his mom to the hospital to have him. Loneliness and a deep sense of loss hang over them like a dark cloud.

A more literal dark cloud appears when Sam becomes convinced that a character named Mister Babadook has entered their lives, and is bent on doing them harm. Sam's increasing paranoia and acting out over this are all it takes to push the family over the edge, with disastrous consequences at work, school, with friends, etc. Soon, what had been a shaky foundation for Sam and Amelia has crumbled altogether, and what had been a slow downward spiral becomes a headlong plunge into Hell.
Is the Babadook real, or imagined? If the Babadook is real, who is really the Babadook? Is the menace to Sam and Amelia internal, or external?
Lots of questions, and I won't answer any of them here, because they're open to interpretation, and you should see the film and decide for yourself. This is the first feature written and directed by former actress Jennifer Kent, and it is a very accomplished piece overall. The acting and direction and (notably gray and black) production design are all excellent. This is very much a women's picture, in the best sense, which raises another quandary for the film, since I suspect that this might well be a story that a lot of women - well, women who are parents, anyway - might really dislike, or feel uncomfortable with. Far from being some out-there horror fantasy, this is a film that goes to some all too real dark places.
Though I liked the film quite a bit, I did have some minor issues with the ending - details of which I will not (SPOILER NON-ALERT!!!) go into here. I urge you to see it for yourself, and then discuss.
In the meantime, here's hoping that some smart producer somewhere is, even as we speak, offering Jennifer Kent lots of money to do something else. Creativity and talent such as she has demonstrated here should be rewarded and encouraged. Here's hoping.

Thanks to Paul at the Darkside for bringing this in. Here's also hoping (again) that business picks up for this film. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

THE INTERVIEW (2014) - A Review
Well, first of all, let me just say that, in a strange way, all the controversy around this film is probably the best thing that could have happened to it. Without it, I think it would have been released on Christmas Day (an odd choice for a release date, to be sure), and been something of a flop, and then quickly forgotten.
Instead, it's a cause, a small piece of Cinema History, and somehow the sum will end up being greater than the parts.
Which is to say, as a film, and just as a film, The Interview is nothing memorable. An interesting and challenging idea, to be sure, but in its execution (mind the pun!) mostly a series of missed opportunities and shallow performances.
But, you ask, is it offensive? I would say yes, because I find comedies that aren't actually very funny offensive. As someone who is fascinated by North Korea, and has read literally dozens of books about the dystopian "Hermit Kingdom," I would also add that I found the gentle and sympathetic way that Kim Jong Un was (mostly) portrayed to be offensive as well. Imagine if Hitler had been portrayed as just being a frustrated painter, and you'll have some idea of how Kim is portrayed here. Given the decades of brutality that his family has personally overseen, I for one am past the point of wanting to "understand" or "empathize" with Kim - he just needs to be gone.
Given all that, as I said above, I think the plot about a shallow celebutante TV host being engaged to assassinate Kim to be both an acceptable and potentially workable plot. But the film both fails to convince, and, more fatally, fails to entertain. Though it was a cheap B-movie,1942's Hitler - Dead or Alive worked similar territory and, if nothing else, delivered the goods in terms of entertainment. Bizarrely enough, I kept thinking how this would have been a great plot for Bob Hope (slick-but-dopey host) and Bing Crosby (fast talking producer) back in the day.
I would pin the blame here on two big problems. One is that co-star/co-writer/co-director Seth Rogen probably should have focused in on just one or two of those jobs, rather than trying to (co) shoulder all of them. The script is mostly limp and juvenile, the direction is hit or miss, and as a screen presence, well, he really isn't.

And his co-star, and ostensible star of the film, James Franco, is just not up to the task - especially given the weak script. His character and performance aren't even one-note, so much as half-note. Yes, it's a farce, but there's absolutely no center to his character, and little continuity - he veers from near-imbecile to sex-obsessed man-boy to would-be serious reporter and crusader and back again - which undercuts the whole film. Especially since the script goes too lightly on Kim (in my opinion).
So, while the movie starts off well, with several good laughs, and a great cameo by Eminem, it quickly bogs down into anal penetration jokes and Franco's wildly unentertaining preening. And, once the story moves to North Korea, it also incorporates a great deal of graphic violence and bloodshed that is, at best, an uneasy mix with the would-be wacky comedy surrounding it. Gore and guffaws can be successfully mixed (paging Mr. Robocop), but the filmmakers here clearly aren't up to the task, leaving us with a film that isn't quite action movie fish or buddy comedy fowl. It winds up being the equivalent of someone shouting the none-too-funny punchline to a joke over and over again, hoping you'll laugh this time.
Uh, no.

The only bright spot to come after the post-opening slump is Diana Bang, who plays the prim and proper contact between the North Korean government and the debased American TV people. She manages to nail both the uptight, authoritarian soldier role, as well as one scene of Jennifer Coolidge-scale uninhibited wildness. Not at all believable, however, is her character's supposed instant attraction to the pudgy and deeply unattractive Rogen. Hollywood male wish fulfillment is on full display here, to be sure.
In any case, Bang, like Ann Savage, lives up to her name, and since she seems to have a lot of projects in the pipeline, I look forward to seeing her again.

The same cannot be said of The Interview. I don't regret seeing it, but see no need to repeat the experience. We came, we saw, we (were not) conquered.
Silver Lining Department: Not only has Paul at the Darkside brought in The Interview, but also, starting today, The Babadook (2014) is finally here! This is a film I've been interested in and excited about for months, so we'll be headed back to the Darkside for the first show of that today. I have no doubt it will be much better than The Interview. 

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Well now...If you know me, or have read my various blogs, then you'll know that two things I'm very interested in are movies and the amazingly dysfunctional twilight zone of North Korea.
So, many, many months ago, when I heard about the movie The Interview (2014), needless to say I was intrigued and, given the plot, somewhat amazed that such a thing had been made. It is perhaps also needless to say that I immediately made a mental note to see it when came out.

Then, before all the Official Revisionist Lackey Malarkey stared spewing out of North Korea, a few early reviews of the film started circulating. Frankly, they did not sound promising. The backwards, bizarro world of North Korea I find disturbing and fascinating; a movie full of male anal anxiety jokes, on the other hand, just sounded like torture. So I started thinking, well, maybe I wouldn't see The Interview when it opened after all.

So now, after Sony caved, the President raved, and indie theaters waved, The Interview is back on track - at least in a small way. It will be playing here tomorrow, and, coming full circle, we're planning to go see it. I in no way believe that by doing so, we're "fighting terrorists on Christmas Day" like a young guy quoted in an AP article about this whole debacle. But at least we can see for ourselves, decide for ourselves, and yes, in some small way, give the finger to Fat Baby Kim Jong Un.
Speaking of which, it's great that I FINALLY have the PERFECT occasion to wear my new Comrade Red Kim Jong Un Fat Baby t-shirt! (See picture below.) Thanks to Paul at the Darkside for making it all possible. You're an unlikely Santa, Paul, but this year you're bringing the presents and then some.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

As a follow up to my previous post...I should mention that the DVD of the Watcher in the Attic was put out by Mondo Macabro, and it contained a whole slew of teasers for other films they've released on video. This trailer reel was so great, my wife and I watched it three times, and took notes of titles we want to try and track down, mainly crazy looking movies from the 1980s made in Indonesia and the Philippines.
With that search in mind, we went down to the library yesterday and, for the first time in a long time, went through their large collection of foreign DVDs. Though I didn't find any of the specific films we're looking for, I did continue my recent run of "Z" movies (I neglected to mention that another DVD I got from Grocery Outlet was the none-too successful "electric western" Zachariah from 1971). I was very pleased to find a copy of William Castle's Zotz! (1962), which, I believe, is the only one of his gimmick-era films that I haven't seen, though I have read the book. And I stumbled across the recent Japanese film, Karate-Robo Zaborgar.

Apparently intended as an homage to the sci-fi transforming robot TV shows of the 1970s, Zaborgar turned out to be pretty delightful, if an acquired taste. Too adult for kids, and too juvenile for adults (in theory), this is the story of a pair of twin brothers. Raised, and nursed, mind you, by their scientist father, one of the boys dies, but is secretly reborn by being exposed to the element "daimonium," which has the property of turning anything it touches into a robot, or some such strangeness. Whatever.

Anyway, the remaining human brother, Daimon, trains in martial arts for ten years, then becomes a crime fighting "secret agent" aided by his robot companion (and brother) Zaborgar, who, in addition to his human form, can also transform into a motorcycle. Together, Daimon and Zaborgar must fight the evil organization Sigma, who are kidnapping the leaders of the world to extract their DNA in order to build a huge, world conquering robot of their own. Unfortunately for Sigma, this process is taking quite a long time, as it turns out.
But the plot is, I think intentionally, pretty silly, and it's not really necessary to follow it in great detail to enjoy this film, which offers much to laugh and marvel at. Action in the first half of the film includes Zaborgar fighting a Diarrhea Robot, as well as a Bulldog Car Robot. Dialogue runs from goofy exposition to goofy expressions of personal angst, such as "I don't want to be a homicidal robot!" 
Then, at the halfway mark, the film jumps to "25 years later," and Daimon is played by a new, older actor. All other returning characters are played by the same actors who played their characters earlier and younger. The leader of Sigma, meanwhile, is still working on his giant robot. It all comes to an end when Daimon and Zaborgar must fight the ultimate weapon of destruction: An immature 20-something woman who is over one hundred stories tall, and talking to her friend Janine on her cellphone - the signal waves from which cause people's heads to explode!

As a menace, it was certainly novel, and a makes for a clear representation of the day-glow, good-natured, good vs. evil silliness of this movie. It has action, robots, robot ninjas, cyborgs, plenty of special effects, martial arts, spy stuff, jokes, drama and tons of colorful costumes and corny music. So, yes, this is a film in which the police officers from the first half of the film become the League of Smiles in the second half - a team of superheroes (without any super powers) who wear insanely bright matching uniforms, and literally launch themselves into the final battle of the film by lighting a fart for propulsion. I told you it was too juvenile for adults, didn't I? Or is that too offensive and adult for children? Whatever.
At any rate, I don't know that I will ever need to see Karate-Robo Zaborgar again, but I certainly did enjoy it last night. The ten year olds and/or cyborgs in your life would probably like it, too. Go, go, Zaborgar!

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Chase is (Sometimes) Better Than the Catch
We're in an age of transition. Movie attendance in the U.S. continues its decades long decline. The sell-through DVD market has also shrunk greatly from its not-so-long-ago heights. Video rental or retail stores are, for all intents, nonexistent. Meanwhile, streaming and bootleg formats for movies are the areas experiencing growth. Kids, literally damning their eyes, are watching movies intended to be seen on the big screen on their cellphones. It may not be the End Times for movies (just yet), but it is a period of instability and change.
I'm not a streaming movie kind of guy. I want to know I can watch a movie even if the internet is down, and without the myriad technological difficulties that these more involved systems can fall victim to. That being the case, I still absolutely love DVDs. They're tangible, dependable, and can come with posters, artwork and extras that can make for a fuller experience of a particular film.
Being that DVDs are cheaper to produce and lighter to ship than VHS tapes ever were, there are still a lot of places that sell DVDs, despite the shrinking market for them. And, given the death of thousands of video stores across the country, used DVDs are cropping up all over the place, too - and not just in thrift stores - often for incredibly low prices.
One of the perks, if you will, of working where I do, is that my walk home takes me right past both a Goodwill and an Arc thrift shop, so I generally check in at these stores multiple times a week. Usually there's nothing of interest to me, but it doesn't cost me anything time-wise to find that out.
Ah, but every so often, persistence pays off, such as the day I found a huge treasure trove of 1940s film noir and 1950s sci-fi that had just been put on the shelf. However, such large scale payoffs are rare.
But it's not unusual to find a couple of films I'm interested in that make for very odd combinations indeed. Such was the case last week, when I came across a still sealed copy of the Academy Award-nominated nature documentary Winged Migration (2001) and a used copy of the Ray Dennis Steckler "classic" The Hollywood Strangler Meets the Skid Row Slasher (1979). What do these two films have in common? Not much, really, other than that I wanted them both, and they both cost three bucks. (Which is probably close to the full budget for the Steckler movie...)
So now, whatever the virtues or demerits of these individual films, my personal enjoyment of them will forever be enhanced and colored by the fact that I bought them as a sort of double-feature. It made me think about how much the experience of finding a movie, or getting to the point of seeing it, can become part of your personal experience of that film. My epic adventure in getting to see the Bollywood film Mr. Bechara (1996) in Chicago is a great story, though too long to go into here. The epic search my wife and I went through in trying to find the local movie theater in Thimphu, Bhutan is another classic - even though it ends with us not even making it into the theater.
As odd DVDs continue to pop up in odd places, I have come to have a deeper understanding of the full breadth of the potential cinematic experience they offer. Where it used to be that you might come across a crazy great movie you'd never heard of on late night cable, now you might find that movie at the checkout aisle at the grocery store, or at a gas station, or pretty much anywhere, really. Unlike seeing it on TV, if you buy the DVD, that film is now yours, available for you to watch again at any time. You just have to stumble across it.
And that's what happened to me in the last week or so. Our local Grocery Outlet, which is also on my path home from work, acquired a huge stock of used DVDs that had come from a Hollywood video store (or stores) somewhere. They're selling them for $2.99 each - but if you buy one, you get another one for free. Needless to say, the day I discovered these, I was a little late getting home from work.
Not surprisingly, most of the DVDs were fairly modern, and fairly mainstream, even the straight-to-video crap titles. But there were some delightful oddities scattered throughout the bin. I got the Something Weird exploitation double-feature of the Wild, Wild World of Jayne Mansfield (1968) and The Labyrinth of Sex (1969). I also picked up a couple of Gene Autry westerns. They had multiple copies of the gruesome 1966 mondo "documentary" Africa Blood and Guts (AKA Africa Addio). They also had many, many copies of the Takashi Miike western, Sukiyaki Western Django (2007).

One of the films they only had one copy of was something I had never heard of before, but hey, for a buck and a half I was more than willing to take a chance on something called The Watcher in the Attic (1976). It turns out to be a strange Japanese erotic thriller, based on a short story by the writer Rampo Edogawa (1894-1965). His stories have been made into dozens of movies, and this particular story has been remade several times since this version.
Set in 1920s Tokyo, Watcher centers on a creepy landlord who, just as the title implies, watches his tenants from the attic. Given that this is an erotic thriller, a generous helping of fetish play, death and murder follow, before (SPOILER ALERT! SPOILER ALERT!) an earthquake flattens everything.

Is it any good? Well, sure. Is it weird? Yes, but nowhere near as out there insane as some similar Japanese films from that time period. Did I enjoy it? For the most part, yes, though I personally found the recurrent use of clown make-up to be anything but erotic. But as my wife and I watched this old, foreign, sex and violence thriller, I kept remembering that I had gotten this at a down market grocery store. Most of the people who work there would probably die of shame if they knew they had been selling a film like this. This aspect of my experience of The Watcher in the Attic added immeasurably to my enjoyment of the film. No doubt it will make me smile and laugh whenever this particular film comes up.
I think that's a lot of context, a lot of story, to get for a buck and a half. Certainly I more than got my money's worth. Hopefully the chase is not always better than the catch, but if you're lucky, the chase can enhance the catch, making it sweeter and weirder than it would have been otherwise.

When I was a kid, one of the stock phrases used in old science fiction trailers was "keep watching the skies!" Now, while I do still watch the skies, I also keep a pretty keen eye on the shelves, too. You never know what's going to turn up.