Monday, May 26, 2014

BUNNY YEAGER (1929-2014) - A Tribute
Like H.R. Giger who recently passed away, Bunny Yeager is probably not a household name, or one that you might necessarily connect to the movies. But like Giger, her presence is now threaded throughout American culture, especially in the visual arts and photography.
Born Linnea Eleanor Yeager in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, her family moved to Miami, Florida when she was 17, and it was there that Bunny was born - taking her name from a Lana Turner's character in Weekend at the Waldorf (1945).  
As a young woman, she was a pageant winner (Miss Trailer Coach of Dade County, Miss Personality of Miami Beach) and soon became a professional model.

Looking to economize, and control the production of her own prints, Bunny Yeager took up photography, enrolling in a night school photography class in her 20s.

And it was as a photographer that Bunny Yeager captured the images that would immortalize her, when she teamed up with the iconic model Bettie Page to create a number of classic photo series - including the shots of Bettie Page in a revealing Santa suit that appeared in Playboy magazine.

She also did make some movies, appearing as herself in some nudies shot by director Barry Mahon, such as Bunny Yeager's Nude Las Vegas (1964) and Nudes on Tiger Reef (1965). She also had credits as a "technical coordinator" on films like Nature's Sweethearts (1963) and How I Became a Nudist (1968). She also had a small part as "Bunny Fjord", a Swedish masseuse in Lady in Cement (1968) with Frank Sinatra.
Back behind the camera, she was also a still photographer for nudies like the bizarre Nude on the Moon (1961) and Blaze Starr Goes Nudist (1962).

In 1962 she also took some (uncredited) stills for the James Bond film, Dr. No which are iconic in their own right. Obviously, the filmmakers wanted someone who knew how to capture vivid shots of women in bikinis. Obviously they succeeded.

I am well aware that some people will look at Bunny Yeager and see nothing but "sexism" and "objectification" of women. That's not the view I have. Was Bunny Yeager a beautiful woman? Yes she was. Did she parlay those looks into a career? Yes she did. Is sexuality an inherent part of human nature? Yes it is. And in Bunny Yeager's heyday, sexuality was viewed as both more threatening and more innocent than it is now. In my opinion, the fact that there is such a strong nostalgia and market for the types of "sexy" images that Bunny Yeager created speaks not to a carnal yearning so much as to a desire for a more innocent time. Bettie Page may have "bared all" physically, but she always did so with a sense of joy. That's a far cry from the show all, tell all, celebrity sex video culture we're all wading through now.

Bunny Yeager was much more than just a pretty face or lovely figure. She was an artist who took control of the means of production, and in that alone blazed trails that many others have since taken. Along the way, she also managed to capture some people and images that will have currency in our culture for lifetimes yet to come. Both those are legacies to be proud of.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

SADDLE THE WIND (1958) - A Review
This is a solid MGM western, not epic in scope or story, but absolutely a film that delivers a compelling and believable story (with a screenplay by Rod Serling) enacted by a top-notch cast.
At the heart of this film is the conflict between brothers Steve Sinclair (Robert Taylor) and his troubled younger brother, Tony (John Cassavetes). In the past, Steve was a hotshot gunslinger, but he's settled down into a stable life as a rancher. Unfortunately, his younger brother is neither settled or stable, and a number of conflicts become unavoidable when Tony returns home to the ranch with Joan Blake (Julie London), a saloon singer he has taken a shine to. She thought that Tony was her ticket out of the saloon and into a steady home life, but she soon sees what Steve sees - that Tony has the ability to destroy anything he touches.

Though this is set (and mostly filmed) in the vast west, and does feature some riding and shooting, the real action in this film is the conflict between the mature and responsible Steve and his violent, erratic (and probably mentally ill) brother. This small focus serves the film well, and makes for a nice contrast with the many westerns that are heavier on the fighting, shooting and action. Taylor and Cassavetes are very believable as the brothers, with similar features and coloring, and they both do good work here. Cassavetes has the showier part, given that Tony is an explosive hothead and constantly has something to prove, but Taylor grounds the film with his portrayal of the serious, duty-bound older brother. In the end, that sense of duty drives him to strap on his gun again and go after his own brother.
Julie London also does a good job here, and, playing to the crowd, is offered a chance to sing a song. Early on, she also declares to Steve that she's "not a slut," language that surprised me coming from 1958. (The line is also in the theatrical trailer for the film, so I guess it must not have been as shocking as all that.) Her character isn't necessarily essential to the plot, but she holds her own with the two leads.
The three name stars are more than ably assisted by an excellent supporting cast. Donald Crisp is very fine as a neighboring landowner who values morals and his word more than money. Charles McGraw, in his nasty tough guy mode, is effective as a gunslinger who comes looking for Steve Sinclair. And western regulars Royal Dano and Ray Teal are in there, too.

The only real complaint I have about this otherwise excellent production is that there are a few instances where scenes that were shot on location are (badly) intercut with scenes shot against a very obvious blue screen. But that's a minor quibble, and one that shouldn't detract from the enjoyment of this low-key but compelling western. At this point in history, the studio system was very much starting to break down - but at their most efficient, the studios were still capable of turning out satisfying films like this with ease. Would that such minor pleasures were so easily produced today.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (2014) - A Review
Another day, another movie based on the comic books I loved so much as a kid. Comic books helped me to learn to love to read, inspired me to teach myself to draw, and generally helped nudge me in the direction of embracing literature and art as central to my life and my self-expression.

Now, if life would mirror the plot of this movie (based on a beloved storyline from the X-Men comic book) and someone were to go back in time to the 1970s and tell young Max that, in the future, all the comic heroes he loved were going to rule movie screens around the world, well, I'm sure that little Max would have been very happy and excited by that thought.
However, as an adult, living in this comic book bliss of a future, I think the actual results are turning out to be decidedly mixed.
I will admit to being somewhat excited by the prospect of this particular movie. I like the X-Men, I read the comics this movie is based on in my formative years, and hey, it was coming out on my birthday. So all indicators were positive going in.
Coming out...Well, I think that comic book fatigue may be setting in. (Mind you, I haven't even seen the latest iterations of Spider-Man.) My wife and I had watched X2 (2003) the night before we saw the new one, and it's a good thing we did. Much of the new movie plays off of themes and characters that featured prominently in that earlier film, so it was actually very useful to have had the refresher. Those coming to this new film without having seen previous ones are likely to spend much of the film just trying to keep up with who all the characters are, what their relationships and motivations are, etc.
In a nutshell, the new film goes like this: In a not-too-distant future, the world has been devastated by the Sentinels, giant mutant hunting robots who have expanded their mission to include those who sympathize with mutants, people who have a genetic predisposition to possibly have mutant children in the future, and so on. It's not a pretty picture. The few remaining X-Men, still led by Professor Xavier (still played by Patrick Stewart) hatch the plan to send someone back in time to the 1970s to try and change the course of events that brought the Sentinels into being in the first place.

Given the hardships of making such a journey (and the top-billed status of Hugh Jackman), it's decided that it makes the most sense to send Wolverine back - despite his being one of the least diplomatic of the group. So Wolverine is sent back, where he connects with the young Professor Xavier (James McAvoy), who eventually enlists in the plan to change history (or in his case, the future).
There's a little more to it than that, but you get the idea. The bulk of the film takes place in the 1970s, with bookends set in the Sentinel-dominated future. This means we get both young and old versions of several characters (notably Professor X and Magneto), in addition to a great many other mutant characters old and new.

The thing that most impressed me about the first X-Men (2000) was how smoothly it handled introducing the whole concept of the mutant community, the many different characters involved, and the plot of the film. The filmmakers had a lot of balls in the air, and they didn't drop any.
However, in this latest film, I think a ball or two may have hit the floor. The explosion of time periods, characters and their powers, villains and semi-villains, younger versions of characters we've seen before, teasers for characters we'll likely see again, various plotlines - it all got to be a bit too much. With all that, and the focus on the bankable (and likeable) Jackman, the film felt a mile wide and an inch deep. This was definitely a film from the school of Too Much Is Not Enough. As but one example of how overstuffed this film is: Anna Paquin is seventh-billed as Rogue - but she appears in only one shot. Yes, that's one shot, not one scene - and she hasn't a single line. Apparently they filmed more scenes with her character, but the film was so full and complex, that she got whittled down to just one shot.
The film also suffers from a lack of a clear villain. Yes, young Magneto (Michael Fassbender) does bad - but he also does some good. Peter Dinklage, as Dr. Bolivar Trask, the creator of the Sentinels, also clearly does some bad things - but it's entirely possible to believe his character thinks he's doing good. And the Sentinels themselves, silent CGI giants, aren't exactly a driving force, either.
So we're left with a whole lot of spectacle that I found less than spectacular. Despite the new plot and characters, a lot of this felt like pieces of the earlier films recut and put together to make a "new" product.
And it's that "product" feel that is the most disappointing. This film has a large and talented cast, yet no one really had a chance to shine, aside from Jackman. Yes, I couldn't help but (once again), key into the depth of meaning associated with the whole misunderstood and persecuted outsider theme - especially in light of the ongoing rollout of marriage equality in the U.S. Gays, mutants, Jews, etc. - we've been remarkably good as a species at finding ways to hate each other, and that hate has a corrosive effect on society.
That's a good and always-current message to have in a film. But here it was undercut by the corrosive effect of special effects. I know that film is a commercial medium, and I know that a lot of money get invested in making and marketing these movies. However, when the dictates of the market result in special effects being the only thing to affect an audience, you've created the cinematic equivalent of drive-though french fries - appealing in the moment they're fresh and hot, but nothing that will hold much appeal in a week or a year from now. Get 'em while they're hot, don't think about it too much, and then get in line for the next batch.
But these movies, coming from different studios, featuring different characters, really are becoming like french fries. Each "new" batch is exactly like the one before it. And the one before that. Special effects, explosions, quip, special effects, explosions, quip. Pass the ketchup.
Ugh. I'm full already!
Whether the heroes are humans or mutants, is it too much to ask that these characters be given a little more identifiable humanity in future? Is it too much to hope that we could possibly care for characters as much as we crave spectacle?

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

H.R. GIGER (1940-2014) - A Tribute
Well, that's eerily appropriate. The last film I posted about here was Jodorowsky's Dune (2013), in which the artist H.R. Giger appeared and figured prominently. Now, just a little while later, he has died, after a taking a bad fall in his home. In the abovementioned documentary, he seemed to be struggling for breath, and I wondered at the time if he was in poor health.
In any case, Giger was, in my opinion, a genius. He was not just a technically brilliant artist, but also, with his self-described focus on "biomechanical" art, a visionary who foresaw (and influenced) many of the images and technologies that have come since he first made a splash in the art world.
Of course, the biggest splash that will forever be associated with Giger, is the splash of blood that came out of John Hurt's belly when Giger's alien in the film Alien (1979) burst out into the public consciousness. Giger designed what is arguably the greatest movie creature of all time - a monster that will give kids nightmares for as long as there's a human race.

When Alien came out, I was in Alaska, visiting my father in Anchorage. He was as a maître de at a swank downtown restaurant (the Corsair) and thus was working in the evenings. But I desperately wanted to see Alien, so he asked a sweet and pretty French waitress there if she would take me to the movie. (I was a kid, and it was very much rated R.) She agreed.
This was an act of kindness she may still regret. I don't remember her name all these years later, but I can still recall her face when we walked out of the theater. She looked shellshocked, pale. I don't know what she thought she was going to go see, but clearly she wasn't expecting that. She quietly escorted me home, then probably went home to have a good cry, or a stiff drink - or both.

Giger won an Oscar in 1980 for his incredibly effective visual effects. He deserved it. And if all he had ever done was created that slimy alien, he'd be worth remembering.
But there is more to his legacy than that. There were other Alien movies, other non-Alien movies, and yes, the coulda been a contender Dune project. He did iconic album covers (Debbie Harry's Koo Koo) and created the infamous insert that came with the Dead Kennedys album Frankenchrist. And always more paintings, sculptures and other art projects. I won't say that Giger was everywhere when I was growing up, but you were always aware that he was out there, doing something dark and brilliant.

Giger was born in Switzerland in 1940, and it's in Switzerland that you can find the H.R. Giger Museum, in a medieval castle (Chateau St. Germain) in Gruyeres. The museum houses a great deal of Giger's artwork, and has what surely must be one of the coolest bars in the world. I don't even drink, and I still think the bar alone is worth a trip to Switzerland.
Like some mad genetic combination of the otherworldly visions of H.P. Lovecraft and some of the showmanship of William Castle, H.R. Giger was unique, frightening, monstrous and marvelous. The fact that so much of what he created is now ubiquitous is a testament to his talents. His death is our loss, but his creations are still out there, giving incredible nightmares and inspirations to an entirely new generation.

Monday, May 5, 2014

JODOROWSKY'S DUNE (2013) - A Review
This documentary is a monument to that which never was - a sprawling film version of Frank Herbert's science fiction novel Dune, that was to have been directed by the passionate and insanely creative Alejandro Jodorowsky. And he, of course, is the writer/director who blew a great many people's minds in the 1970s with his films El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973) - both of which were commercial and cult successes.
Dune was going to be his follow-up to those, and Jodorowsky (who hadn't even read the book, mind you) envisioned creating an epic film with a spiritual core and message. As he explains in this documentary, he was aiming to literally change the world, and to give audience members the equivalent of an LSD trip, but without the drugs.

To create this world-changing epic, Jodorowsky personally gathered around him a pretty amazing cast and crew - causing worlds to collide if nothing else. For work behind the camera, he enlisted H.R. Giger (the Swiss artist who designed the alien in 1979's Alien), and young American Dan O'Bannon (who would later write Alien and write and direct 1985's Return of the Living Dead), and the famous French artist Jean Giraud (AKA Moebius), among others. In addition, the bands Pink Floyd and Magma were set to do music for the film.
His cast included David Carradine, Mick Jagger, Orson Welles, Udo Kier, Salvador Dali, and Dali's then companion, the model/actress Amanda Lear. Jodorowsky also cast his son Brontis in the film - a move that required the boy to take two years of martial arts lessons to prepare for his role.
With his cast and crew of "warriors" in place, and with the production designed and laid out in a book (with all the shots sketched out in thousands of illustrations), Jodorowsky and his French producer Michel Seydoux set out to find the money to actually make the film...
...And couldn't find a studio willing to back them. Despite the fact that everyone seems to have been impressed with the idea and the people involved, and despite the fact that Jodorowsky's previous films had been hits, it seems that having him attached to the film as director made people nervous. This film was going to be a huge undertaking, and they weren't sure this crazy Chilean would be able to get it done. Jodorowsky seems not to have helped his case by telling the studio people, who wanted a 90 minute finished film, that he might make a film "twelve hours long, twenty hours long." Oops.
Thus, what might have been great, was instead...lost. A few years later, Star Wars (1977) came along and opened the door for big, hit space epics. And, of course, a decade after the studios turned down Jodorowsky for being too out-there, Universal Studios finally made a film of Dune (1984) - and picked the very out-there David Lynch to write and direct it. The film was a commercial and critical disaster. Oops again.
So now we have the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune, which gives a taste of what might have been. From all available evidence, it almost certainly would have been better than Lynch's attempt, and given Jodorowsky's (then) hip, underground cred, his fabulous international cast and crew, and the film market in the 1970s...It might have been a hit. Would it have changed the world? Who knows? But it's a shame we didn't get the chance to find out.

If you love films, or are interested in the business of making films, then this documentary should hold a great deal to interest you. If you just love a great story, or tales of lost loves, then this film should have even more appeal for you. Even now, years later, and in his mid-80s, Jodorowsky is obviously still passionate about this idea, the one that got away. As someone who admires much of his work, I was very excited when I heard about this documentary, and it did not disappoint.
Hopefully this documentary will also serve as something of an appetizer for Jodorowsky's new film, The Dance of Reality (2013), which is his first film in over two decades. Until that one hits town, I will savor the delight provided by this film, and revisit his 1989 masterpiece, Santa Sangre, which remains one of my favorite films of all time. 

Friday, April 11, 2014

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL (2014) - A Review
This picks up two hours after the events of the first film, so we'd better start there...
The Raid: Redemption (2011) was all about an elite group of police officers in Jakarta who are tasked with taking down a crime boss who is holed up in a high rise apartment building - or, as the tagline for the film said: "1 Ruthless Crime Lord. 20 Elite Cops. 30 Floors of Chaos." The good guys soon find that getting into the building was easy, but that getting out is extremely difficult, since the bad guys lock down the entire building once they're in. This leads to an hour and a half of non-stop action and mayhem, at the end of which only two of the good guys walk (well, limp) away. One of those two is Rama (Iko Uwais), who we meet again two hours later...
...When one of his fellow police officers explains that, since Rama (Uwais again) is alive, the bad guys from the first film will want to hunt him and his family down. So it's pitched to him that the best thing he could do is to immediately go undercover - in prison, no less - to infiltrate the Jakarta syndicate and help bring them down from the inside. Rama is understandably reluctant to do so, but, because he fears for his family's safety, he agrees. He's told he'll only have to spend a few months in prison to establish himself with the crooks. Cue the title card that says it's two years later...Rama gets sprung and taken into the fold of the mob run by Bangun (Tio Pakusadewo). Rama had saved Bangun's hotheaded son, Uco (Arifin Putra), from being killed during a riot in the prison, an act which made Bangun grateful to Rama, even if he doesn't trust him entirely.
Of course, Rama isn't getting much help from his contact on the police force, either, and he's still furious that he wound up spending two years in prison. So, stuck in his new role for the duration, Rama tries to navigate the Jakarta underworld from the inside - and tries to keep Uco from breaking the truce between his family and the Japanese Goto clan.
There's more to it than that, but I trust you get the idea. At two and a half hours in length, this film unfolds in an unhurried fashion, yet is always moving forward. Films longer than two hours are a tough sell for me, but I was engaged with this all the way through. Yes, it is extremely violent in parts, but it's nothing like the essentially non-stop carnage in the first film. Other than continuing with the character of Rama, this is a very different film from the first one, which is a refreshing change from the usual sequel that is often just a remake/retread of whatever came before.

As with the first film, this was written and directed by Gareth Evans, who is inexplicably but wonderfully a Welshman working in Indonesia (again), this time with a cast that is pretty much all Indonesian and Japanese. Though I really, really hate how blurry digital photography looks whenever there's swift movement, I give Evans credit for doing a good job of keeping things fairly easy to follow, even in the midst of chaos. Even in the prison riot sequence, in which everyone involved is instantly covered in mud, Evans makes it clear who is who, and how all the flailing, fighting bodies relate to one another spatially. I also give him credit for avoiding action movie clichés in his soundtrack (no cliché grating loud rock during fight scenes) and for often choosing to slow things down for a spell, rather than try to keep the entire film going at a hectic tempo.
But hectic moments do occur fairly regularly, and action fans (like my wife, who squealed throughout the film) should be very pleased with this. There are car chases, gun fights, knife fights, hammer fights, and all sorts of very impressive martial arts work and hand-to-hand combat (co-choreographed by Uwais, a professional in pencak silat, or Indonesian martial arts). Much has been made of the elevator fight scene in the recent Captain America sequel, with Cap fighting a whole gang of baddies in that tight space. Well, Uwais totally tops that here in his first big fight scene - a fight in which he takes on about a dozen angry inmates in a toilet stall. There's also not one, but two fights in cars; a fight in a mom and pop restaurant, and in a big commercial kitchen; a fight in a subway car; a fight in a nightclub. The action scenes (though blurry) are really impressive, and very physical in the truest sense of the word.
Actually, comparisons to the new Captain America movie are appropriate. Both are second films in a series. Both are lengthy action films containing many of the stock materials used to construct such things (fist fights, gun fights, car chases, etc.). And both focus on lead characters who are unquestionably good, but who are stuck in a position of fighting evil on one hand, while quite possibly being undermined by some of their so-called allies on the other side as well.
But whereas the second Captain America feels like product turned out for an increasingly global market, The Raid 2 is full of the energy and passion of people creating something that they love. Though its central storyline is one that has been used many times before, the film feels fresh, alive and vital. As pure spectacle, the (mostly) real bodies used to create the impressive (mostly) real action in The Raid 2 absolutely trumps the cliché, CGI fireballs and flying ships that provide so many of the "thrills" in massive and expensive Hollywood film product. The fact that Evans and Uwais were able to turn out such an utterly ballistic and satisfying film on a budget that had to be a tiny fraction of what they spent on Captain America: The Winter Soldier is also worth noting, and something to give them a great deal of credit for. 
I was delighted to see that this was coming to our local multiplex. In the year that I've lived here, I have never seen them buy an ad in our local newspaper - until today, when I spotted a small ad just for this film. My wife and I went to the first show. Besides us, there was just one other person there. I suspect that the theater booked it because of the large number of Asian and international students that we have here. Unfortunately, this is opening here the same weekend that many of the Asian student associations are having their big annual events (India Night, Japan Night, Vietnamese Night), keeping lots of said students busy. Hopefully the attendance will pick up, because this is a great film that deserves to be seen, and to do well. As soon as we were out of the theater, my wife said she'd like to see it again. I would too.
P.S. - "Berandal" means thug...

Monday, April 7, 2014

MICKEY ROONEY (1920-2014) - A Tribute
What can you say about Mickey Rooney that hasn't been said already? The guy had a true one-of-a-kind life, in addition to a remarkably long life and lengthy career. He was well and truly woven into the historical fabric of 20th century America.

Mickey was one of the rare child stars who went on to become an adult star. And he didn't just become an adult star, for several years at his peak he was the star, ranked Number One at the American box office. His films as Andy Hardy and co-starring with Judy Garland are icons of the Golden Age of Hollywood.
He didn't just make a movie with Clark Gable - he played Gable's character as a child in 1934's Manhattan Melodrama. This was also the movie John Dillinger watched at the Biograph Theater just before he was shot down by the feds. Twenty-two years later, Mickey played real-life gangster Baby Face Nelson in the 1957 film of that name. Nelson and Dillinger had been cohorts, and Nelson was also shot dead by the feds in 1934. How's that for a weird full circle?
Mickey's first wife was Ava Gardner. Just that alone would be enough for a lifetime for most men.
But, in the end, Mickey had eight wives total. His fortunes went through numerous booms and busts.
Mickey was on the cover of Time magazine.

Mickey made great A pictures, and some memorable B pictures, and a few truly whacked out wonders like The Private Lives of Adam and Eve (1960 - he played the Devil and co-directed the picture) and the awful/wonderful Skidoo (1968).
Mickey was a hit in the movies, and on Broadway.
Mickey sang and danced and acted and wrote and directed.
Sir Laurence Olivier once referred to him as the greatest film actor America ever produced.
And on and on and on - and then on some more. Mickey Rooney in many ways embodied the expression too much is never enough.

Tonight, to mark his passing, we'll be watching him in my favorite of his films, the excellent domino noir, Quicksand (1950). I think it's one of his best dramatic roles, and it was made smack in the middle of the century he straddled like few others. (In Quicksand, Mickey has one scene with a young Jack Elam, whom I used to see almost every morning at a bakery I worked at. So for a time, I guess I was just a couple of degrees of separation from Mickey...)

I'm not going to lie and say the Mickey Rooney was ever one of my favorite performers, but I absolutely recognize and respect his place in American film history, and American history in general. He led a life in the movies, and a life that was like a movie.
Rest in peace, Mickey. I hope that Ava's there to give you a kiss.