Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Blogorium Review: Jodorowsky's Dune

 If you haven't heard of Alejandro Jodorowsky, it's not going to surprise me one bit, and that's okay. Jodorowsky is best known for making El Topo and The Holy Mountain, two exercises in cinematic surrealism that aren't necessarily known for their accessibility. El Topo is considered by many to be the original "Midnight Movie," and includes extreme violence, bizarre imagery, Jodorowsky's son, Bristol, naked for much of the movie, and sporadic cruelty toward animals. It's a western. The Holy Mountain is... stranger than that, but arguably easier to stomach. I'm not saying that they aren't worth seeing, but it takes a particular type of adventurousness to want to watch them. If I had my druthers, I'd give The Holy Mountain the edge, but you might want to read a little bit about Jodorowsky before you dive in blindly.

 So this might explain why some of your friends went nuts with excitement when they heard Frank Pavich (N.Y.H.C.) was making a documentary called Jodorowsky's Dune. At least you maybe recognized the second word, even if the significance of the first didn't resonate. For fans of science fiction on the big screen, Alejandro Jodorowsky's adaptation of Dune is the great "what if?" of the genre. It's mentioned in The Greatest Sci-Fi Movies Never Made (although it didn't make it into my review of the book, for some reason) and exists in a certain realm of "Hollywood Urban Legend": the great unmade epic that influenced every science fiction film made for the next four decades. And finally, we have it on film. The story is every bit as mad as Jodorowsky himself, and every bit as compelling as it sounded when you first heard about it. I have no idea if his conception of Dune could even be made, but I'd love to see it.

 Jodorowsky states that he wanted his Dune to feel like "being on LSD without actually taking LSD," and thanks to the exhaustive book he and producer Michel Seydoux prepared for every studio in Hollywood, it's clear from the concept art and storyboards that he meant it.  In 1974, after El Topo and The Holy Mountain, Seydoux offered Jodorowsky the opportunity to make "whatever he wanted," and the director decided he wanted to adapt Frank Herbert's Dune. He'd never read Dune, but friends of his had, and the idea excited him. Jodorowsky set about concocting a grand plan for the film, to push the boundaries of what was possible in cinema, and assembled his team of "warriors": artists, actors, and musicians he could find to make his dream a reality.

 Many, including the Cap'n, have wondered why it took so long for someone to make this film, but I suppose it's not worth complaining about too much. Even at 84, Jodorowsky remains energetic and sprightly, but many of the most tantalizing pieces of his puzzle have long since passed. Three major contributors to Jodorowsky's vision died not long before the documentary and the other very recently (thankfully, he's in the film and one of the others is featured in archival audio).  Jodorowsky sought out a team of artists to help him conceptualize the worlds of the book: Dan O'Bannon (Dark Star, Lifeforce), Jean "Moebius" Giraud (Tron, The Fifth Element), and science fiction cover designer Chris Foss traveled to Paris to create Arrakis, Giedi Prime, and the various spacecraft used in the film. Moebius also drew the storyboards that make up much of Jodorowsky's massive concept book in order to give a clear idea of how the director planned to make the impossible imagery a reality.

 With his ideas in place, Jodorowsky excitedly moves on to how he planned fill in the other pieces of the film in order to sell it to studios. For Duke Leto Atreides, he brought on board David Carradine, and for the Duke's son, Paul Atreides, Jodorowsky again turned to his son Bristol. For the corpulent Baron Harkonnen, Jodorowsky tracked down Orson Welles and convinced him to agree to the picture by promising to hire his favorite chef to serve him food (this is not a joke or some crack at Welles' weight - Jodorowsky tells the story himself). For Feyd-Rautha, he sought out and found Mick Jagger (in one of the story's many coincidental meetings, the only parts of the tale I found hard to believe) - in the actual Dune that David Lynch completed (more on that later), Sting plays the role, for those curious.

 Jodorowsky's great coup was convincing Salvador Dali to play the "Emperor of the Galaxy", a feat that required many "tests" by the great artists and a series of demands that seem like they would (and should) have crippled the film. Dali demanded his own helicopter, for a giraffe to appear onscreen with him, an elephant, and most troubling to Seydoux, to be "the greatest paid actor in Hollwood." Dali told Jodorowsky he wanted "$100,000 per minute," which the director assured Seydoux would be feasible if they only paid him for the amount of time on screen - about three minutes. To further assure Dali's cooperation, Jodorowsky cast the artist's muse, Amanda Lear, in the film, despite her warnings that Dali would "destroy the project."

 Whether he would have wrecked Dune or not, Dali did bring one major piece to the design of the film by introducing Jodorowsky to the art of H.R. Giger. Giger joined the film to design the world of the Harkonnens, and some of the concept work might look quite familiar to viewers of the film Prometheus (in particular, the pyramid). Among many of the shifts in adaptation, Jodorowsky mentions his ending for the film departs radically from the ending of the book (to give you some idea, the title of one of Herbert's sequels, Dune Messiah, is treated almost literally).

 With much of his dream cast in place, Jodorowsky and composer Christian Vander set about wooing bands to craft music for each of the planets featured in Dune. The only two mentioned in the documentary are Pink Floyd and Magma, and only the members of Magma appear on camera, but it seems like both were excited to make albums exclusively devoted to Arrakis and Giedi Prime (respectively). With a budget of 15 million and his pieces in place, Jodorowsky and Seydoux set off from Paris to Los Angeles to pitch the film. The end result, as many of you have guessed, is not a happy one for Alejandro Jodorowsky.

 The interesting thing that I found from Jodorowsky's Dune is that the studios were receptive to the books presented to them. They liked the concept, the execution, and found that the seemingly impossible requirements of visual effects had logical workarounds. The only sticking point was that they didn't want the man who put it all together: Alejandro Jodorowsky. There are a number of suggestions bandied about as to why they simply refused to make the picture with him as a director, but the end result is that his vision of Dune was never made because the studio system didn't trust the man who put all of this together to be able to make it a reality. The sense of heartbreak in Jodorowsky's voice, late in the film (he speaks in a combination of broken English and Spanish) is the hardest part. His frustration that they wouldn't even let him try to make Dune, and would instead let the rights lapse is palpable.

 Jodorowsky's Dune does touch on the aftermath, when the De Laurentiis Company bought the rights and David Lynch took over as the vision behind the film. Jodorowsky admits that he had no desire to see the film, and worse still, because he "admired David Lynch," he feared it might be even better than his vision. His sons convinced him to see Dune, ten years after he began work on his aborted project, and to his great relief, "it was awful!" Jodorowsky admits that this is "a human response, one that I am not proud of, but it was my response." He doesn't blame Lynch for the failure of the film, but rather the producers.

 The books remained with the studios, and the influence of his unrealized vision filtered into almost every science fiction film made after 1974. Many of the participants in the film not involved Dune's production - among them Nicolas Winding Refn (Pusher, Drive), Richard Stanley (Hardware), producer Gary Kurtz (Star Wars), and online writers Drew McWeeny and Devin Faraci - point out direct influences on Star Wars, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Masters of the Universe, and Contact. These are accompanied by storyboards and art which are hard to argue didn't come directly from the book, particularly Contact, in which Robert Zemeckis executes a reverse of Jodorowsky's planned opening: an unbroken, continuous shot through space which ends on Arrakis.

  More noticeable, particularly if you move past Star Wars, is the indispensable role Jodorowsky played (in absentia) in the creation of Alien. Following the collapse of Dune, O'Bannon returned to Los Angeles, dejected, and eventually wrote the screenplay for what became Alien with Ronald Shusett. When he met with Ridley Scott about the film, who did O'Bannon recommend to design the film? Chris Foss, Jean "Moebius" Giraud, and H.R. Giger, his fellow artists from Dune. It's also interesting, in a roundabout way, that Ridley Scott considered taking over the DeLaurentiis Dune after finishing Alien, but decided instead to adapt Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, leaving David Lynch - who had turned down Return of the Jedi - to step in. Jodorowsky's often unspoken influence on a generation of science fiction films finally gets its due, up on screens and not just in blogs and books.

 While it's clear that he can't bear the thought of trying again, Jodorowsky does express relief that most of the conceptual art found its way into the world through his collaboration with Moebius in graphic novels. Moreover, he hopes that after his death someone will take the book and create an animated film of his Dune. If the semi-animated versions of Foss' paintings (kind of like The Kid Stays in the Picture) are any indication, it would be a welcome substitute to look forward to.

 It is still hard to imagine that Alejandro Jodorowsky's mad plan could have translated to film, although I'd love to have seen his try. He only made three films after Dune's collapse - Tusk, Santa Sangre, and The Rainbow Thief (I've only seen Santa Sangre) - but being involved in Pavich's documentary led Jodorowsky and Seydoux to reconnect, and together they made The Dance of Reality last year. I hadn't heard of it until Jodorowsky's Dune, but it's described as a "metaphorical, poetical" autobiography, so I plan to seek it out in the near future. In the meantime, I highly recommend Jodorowsky's Dune, both to people who have been aware of the story and to people wondering what we were all so excited about. This review only really scratches the surface of what's covered in the film - I left out almost all of Jodorowsky's best stories - so don't worry that you'll already know everything going in. Just sit back and enjoy what might have been.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Quick Review: The Skull

 Like the previously reviewed Spider Baby, The Skull is a movie I had heard about but hadn't seen until very recently. For some reason, I had it in my mind that it was a more obscure Hammer title, but in fact it's an Amicus release. If that name doesn't sound familiar, I'd be willing to wager that most horror fans have seen at least one of their anthology films*: Tales from the Crypt, The Vault of Horror, From Beyond the Grave, Dr. Terror's House of Horror, Asylum, or The House that Dripped Blood. The Skull is one of their non-anthology releases, and while it's a minor entry in the realm of British Horror, there are enough creepy and / or surreal flourishes to recommend the film - if you can find it.

 If this were a spoiler, I'd mark it accordingly, but before any character identifies the person who the titular object belongs to, the credits give it away by saying the film is based on Robert Bloch's "The Skull of the Marquis de Sade." After a prologue where a grave robbing phrenologist (Maurice Good) steals the Marquis' head and meets and unfortunate end for it, we move to modern day London. Amateur demonologist and collector Dr. Christopher Maitland (Peter Cushing) is at an auction and in a friendly bidding war with fellow collector Sir Matthew Phillips ("Guest Star" Christopher Lee) over a few statues representing Hell's hierarchy. Phillips bids far more than the statues are worth, but cannot explain why he was so intent on purchasing them.

 Maitland returns home, and is visited by the unsavory Anthony Marco (Patrick Wymark), who "acquires" rare pieces and sells them - cash only, please. He offers Maitland a copy of The Life of the Marquis de Sade, a book bound in human flesh, with a promise he has something "even more interesting" to bring the next night. Despite Maitland's wife, Jane (Jill Bennett)'s protestations, Marco prefers to let himself in, and the good doctor tells him that Marco is "always welcome." The following night, Marco brings along the skull of the Marquis de Sade, and seems willing to part with it for less than his initial offering price. Maitland is suspicious that it's stolen, and his suspicions are concerned when Phillips vouches for the authenticity of the object. It was stolen from him, and he doesn't want it back: the skull of the Marquis de Sade brings with it evil spirits who drive men to do horrible things during the new moon.

 But as The Skull is a horror movie, we know that Maitland will give in to temptation. It's a "curiosity killed the cat" sort of story, and while it sometimes drags a bit during its 83 minutes, once the skull starts working on Maitland, there are a few stylistic flourishes that keep you invested. The film features a rare pairing of Cushing and Lee where the latter is the voice of reason, which is worth watching, and there are a few small parts for recognizable British actors: Michael Gough (Batman) appears early as an auctioneer, and Patrick Magee (Die, Monster, Die!) is the police surgeon baffled by the means in which Marco meets his end (SPOILER). Genre go-to director Freddie Francis (Tales That Witness Madness) stages Marco's death scene without ever showing him die, in what is both an excellent bit of narrative suggestion but also a surreal break in the mostly straightforward narrative.

 Maitland hasn't decided to buy the skull yet, and is sitting in his study reading The Life of the Marquis de Sade, when his window begins to glow a strange green hue. Two policemen arrive and inform him he's under arrest, but will not tell him what he's charged with. Instead of taking him to the station, he finds himself in a large, mostly empty room. In the center is the Judge (Frank Forsyth), who never utters a word but instructs the "police" to force Maitland to play a game of Russian Roulette. When he lives, he's shoved into a red room which serves as a sort of "gas chamber" and awakens to find himself in the stairwell of Marco's apartment, a place he's never been before. Thanks to a flashback to the phrenologist's home, where his Executor is hypnotized by the skull and murders the dead man's mistress, we know that the skull is capable of creating a trance-like state, but the dream sequence adds a better sense of mystery to The Skull's midpoint.

 It also introduces the stairwell for a scene later, when Maitland returns to take the skull and confronts Marco's landlord (Peter Woodthorpe), leading to a death scene that may well have influenced the "stained glass" kill in Suspiria. I certainly thought of Argento's film when it happened, although the latter film embellishes the end result more than the earlier one does. There are several moments throughout the second half of The Skull with suspense and atmosphere, and despite some obvious wires carrying it around, the image of the floating head is striking.

 The (mostly) wordless climactic battle of wills between Maitland and the evil spirits goes on for far too long and becomes bogged down with awkwardly place religious imagery (although the return of one of the statues from the beginning is a nice touch). I get the impression that Francis and screenwriter Milton Subotsky (I, Monster) were trying to whip the audience into a frenzy of terror, but the lasting impression is more of histrionics than fear. I appreciate the ending, but at times it feels that The Skull might have been better as a part of an anthology rather than a feature unto itself. Still, for fans of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, it's worth seeking out as a minor chiller.

*They also released both of the Peter Cushing "Dr. Who" movies, but we won't get into that.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Blogorium Review: Spider Baby

 Jack Hill's Spider Baby, or The Maddest Story Ever Told is one of the more unusual films I think I've ever seen. That has to say something, as the Blogorium has seen its share of the strange and "off the beaten path" cinema. It's more coherent than Death Bead: The Bed That Eats, and less hyperbolic than Blood Car, to be sure, but there's something about the tone of Spider Baby that resonates well after the film ends. Lurid? Yes. Graphically violent? At times. It meets most of the check-marks for "low budget shocker" from the 1960s, but Spider Baby is nothing like the two most famous titles from that era: Night of the Living Dead and Carnival of Souls. It's so weird that the film often makes Freaks look tame by comparison, if only in how nonchalant everyone seems to be about the Merrye family.

 Somewhere in the hills of California (?) is what remains of the Merrye Mansion, a place nobody wants to go anymore. Its only inhabitants are Elizabeth (Beverly Washburn), her younger sister Virginia (Jill Banner), and their older brother Ralphie (Sid Haig), under the care of the family chauffeur, Bruno (Lon Chaney Jr.). Well, there might be a few odd uncles and aunts in the basement, but that's Bruno's business. The Merrye's have a unique affliction: a genetic disorder that causes them to "regress" as they grow older, mentally at first but eventually physically as well. Virginia believes that she's a spider, and eats bugs, along with anything (or anyone) she catches in her "web." Elizabeth dresses and behaves like a child and wants nothing more than for Bruno to hate her sister, to the point that she allows Virginia to kill the mailman (Mantan Moreland) early in the film. Ralphie? Well, it might be better to think of him less as a person and more like a dog - he's in the late stages of "Merrye Syndrome" and is basically feral.

 To Bruno's great dismay, the mailman (who was dead when he got home, to be fair) is delivering notice from the niece and nephew of "The Master" of the Merrye Estate, Emily (Carol Ohmart) and Peter (Quinn Redeker) Howe, who have come to take control of the manor and assume custody of the children. Emily brings along her lawyer, Mr. Schlocker (Karl Schanzer) and his assistant, Ann Morris (Merry Mitchell), with hopes of cashing in on the estate, but what they find is a very different matter indeed. The children trust Bruno and they do their best to appear "normal" for their extended family, but it's only so long before their natural tendencies surface...

 Originally titled Cannibal Orgy, the film begins with a kooky animated credits sequence, accompanied by a song about the story to come, sung by Chaney. If you didn't know what you were getting into, this sets the tone right away, and Mantan Moreland's jittery mailman give a clear sense that Spider Baby teeters on the brink of "camp" territory. Not intentionally, mind you, but the bizarre display of "Merrye Syndrome," and Elizabeth and Virginia in particular are a template for the sorts of characters who populated John Waters films in the 1970s. They just don't know any better - it's how they've always lived, with Bruno keeping a close eye on them and the rest of the world shut out.

 For the Merrye family, it's perfectly normal that Ralphie uses a dumbwaiter between floors of the house, and while Emily is appalled at their lack of "manners," Peter takes it all in stride. He accepts them as they are, a choice that makes Spider Baby all the more unusual; the film doesn't revel in how bizarre the Merrye's are (and they certainly are), but takes them at face value and presents the intruders as the "strange" ones. At no point in the film is the audience ever sympathetic towards Schlocker or Emily, and the emerging romance between Peter and Ann seems to exist so that Virginia's affections toward him go unrequited. That they're family only seems to go noticed by Peter, but he's so accommodating of the girls that in more lurid hands, who knows where the story may have headed...

 I'm almost positive that Spider Baby is a direct influence on Rob Zombies' House of 1000 Corpses, particularly on how the presentation of the Merrye's mirrors the behavior of the Firefly clan. It's not just that Sid Haig is in both films, although that certainly doesn't hurt the case that Zombie has seen Spider Baby and borrows from it (in particular, watch the dinner scene and compare Baby on the couch in Corpses with Virginia and Peter in the "web" scene). The difference that makes a difference between Spider Baby and House of 1000 Corpses is that the former was intentionally designed to be a comedy and the latter resembles a grab-bag of "grindhouse" tropes in the guise of a horror movie. (In the interest of full disclosure, the Cap'n is not a fan of House of 1000 Corpses).

 We're meant to laugh at the arch behavior and the unexpected resolution to the Ralphie / Emily "romance" - if you want to call it that - in the same way that Bruno's admission the family is "vegetarian" at the dinner table. The concession to this rule is that Virginia eats bugs and Ralphie is allowed to eat whatever he "catches," which includes the cooked cat on the table. Only Peter seems interested in partaking, mostly because he assumes it's a fox or something of that nature.

 The distinction that Spider Baby is a comedy - a very, very black comedy at that - is often missed by people who discover the film. Hill, who made his feature debut with Spider Baby, lost the film in a series of tangled rights issues following the producers going bankrupt, delaying its release for the better part of the 1960s. When Cannibal Orgy finally made its way to theaters, it was unusually paired with biker films (Hells Chosen Few) or horror anthologies (Dr. Terror's House of Horrors). Given that sort of pairing, it's understandable that Spider Baby remains largely unknown to this day. I had heard of it, but had never seen a copy of the U.S. DVD, and ultimately came to the film through the Arrow Video Blu-Ray release, which does look fantastic for a 50 year old film that only made it to drive-ins. It existed on the margins of cult cinema for so long that even Jack Hill is surprised by the affinity its fans have for the film. He seems puzzled to be remembered for this over Switchblade Sisters or Foxy Brown, but for a young filmmaker working on a low budget, it's a very assured debut.

 Part of the appeal was seeing a younger Sid Haig, and also Ohlmart (memorable as Vincent Price's venomous wife in House on Haunted Hill), but chiefly I wanted to see Lon Chaney, Jr. in one of his better later roles. Unlike Alligator People or Hillbillys in a Haunted House, Chaney wasn't consigned to the "drunken caretaker" role, and is instead the surrogate parent for the Merrye children. He has quite a few tender moments with the girls, particularly when Virginia does something unforgivable and Elizabeth desperately wants him to shun her for it. He tells them that he could never hate them, and does his best to manage an untenable situation when Emily and Peter arrive. His sense of resignation about the real world colliding with the fantasy world of the Merrye "children" keeps Spider Baby from simply being a freak show. Tonally speaking, Chaney is what makes Spider Baby such a strange film, in that he simply refuses (as a character and, presumably, as an actor) to treat this madness as anything other than "par the course."

 The big surprise, at least for me, was Jill Banner as Virginia. I knew almost nothing about her going into the film, and only found out after the fact that she had been developing scripts with Marlon Brando prior to her untimely death (car accident). While Beverly Washburn has the more "camp" performance, Banner is mesmerizing as the titular character, who seems totally disconnected to reality in any form. Her fascination with "Uncle Peter" is both creepy and sweet, although her intentions always lead back to playing "spider" with a pair of kitchen knives for fangs. It's a shame there isn't more of Banner to see on-screen, but as first impressions go, she makes the most of hers.

 (SPOILERS AHEAD) I do have one minor point of contention for the film - the original title, Cannibal Orgy, doesn't actually make much sense until the very end of the movie, when the completely devolved "relatives" in the basement are revealed. To that point, we're only aware that Bruno and the girls put the bodies of the mailman and Schlocker in the dumbwaiter and send them to the basement, but it's not clear that the "uncles" and "aunts" are eating them. Furthermore, it's hard to tell exactly what Elizabeth eats other than moss and mushrooms, and Virginia only eats bugs and cuts up people - she keeps the mailman's ear in a box, but never makes any overtures that she'd eat it. Ralphie eats other animals, and Bruno doesn't appear to have any cannibalistic tendencies. I understand that the title is lurid and grabs your attention, but in this instance Spider Baby may, in fact, be the better choice, even if the opening song specifically references cannibalism.

 It's a minor quibble, I admit: Spider Baby is a film that deserves to be better known than it is, but if you like hunting out on the edges of cult classics, I think you'll find it is every bit as deserving of your attention as Carnival of Souls or Night of the Living Dead. Possibly as influential, albeit to a different group of filmmakers. And don't worry too much about the goofy prologue with Peter that sets up "Merrye Syndrome" - the closing bookend wraps it up well (or does it???).  Spider Baby is the sort of low budget exploitation that sneaks up on you, and continually surprises, confuses, and amuses you. I wish I'd have seen it sooner, but even a Cap'n can be late to the party some times. Come over some time and I'll be happy to show it to you, but do watch out for my web. I get to eat what I catch, you see...

Sunday, June 15, 2014

War of the Blogorium Monsters: Godzilla on Monster Island vs. Godzilla (2014)!

 Okay, gang! The time has come to discuss the King of the Monsters, Godzilla, and because it's not fair to compare the original Gojira with Gareth Edwards' reboot-quel, we'll go with the only other frame of reference I have (because I just watched it): Godzilla on Monster Island (aka Godzilla vs. Gigan). Is it a fair fight? Probably not, but I'm in no mood to talk about Godzilla: Final Wars, Godzilla 2000, or G.I.N.O. (Godzilla In Name Only, aka Godzilla '98), so we're going with the really silly one from 1972 with the Godzilla Tower. It turns out they have a few things in common.

 If you've never seen Godzilla on Monster Island, I am not surprised. I had never seen it, and while I am no authority on kaiju movies (as discussed in my Pacific Rim review), I did know that it follows Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster (Hedora), which I might have seen. This one continues the environment message (kinda) but is mostly a very silly movie. (For the record, I watched the film in Japanese with English subtitles, so please don't jump to the comments to criticize me for watching a dubbed version. I may be approaching this review from the point of general ignorance, but at least I stuck to the rules). In Gojira, the titular character is frightening and a metaphor for nuclear weapons, etc. We all know this, so I don't feel like I'm blowing your minds or anything, and besides, by Godzilla on Monster Island, that really has no bearing on Godzilla as a character.

 The Big G isn't even messing around with Tokyo at the beginning of the movie; he's chilling on Monster Island with the other monsters, many of whose asses he kicked in previous movies (that must be awkward at cookouts), specifically Anguirus (from Godzilla Raids Again). Like most of the Godzilla movies I've seen, it's not really about the monsters for a while, and instead is about a comic book artist named Gengo Kotaka (Hiroshi Ishikawa) and his girlfriend Tomoko Tomoe (Yuriko Hishimi), who, uh, knows Judo. That's the only information about her I really remember, mostly because it's the only thing we find out about her that has any bearing on the story.

 Gengo is having trouble getting jobs with Manga companies because he draws stupid things like "The Monster of Homework" and the monster of "Disapproving Mothers" or something like that which has a resemblance to Tomoko, and you'd better believe she doesn't like that. She sends him on an interview to World Children's Park, a theme park devoted to peace that also features a giant Godzilla Tower. The director, Kubota (Toshiaki Nishizawa) and chairman, Suda (Zan Fujita) of the World Children's Foundation think his dumb monsters are kind of cute, so they hire him. Gengo almost screws it up on his first day when he runs into a woman hightailing it out of the building. She drops a tape and he picks it up, but Kubota and some goons are looking for her and the tape. Gengo lies, which seems like a poor way to make a first impression.

 Meanwhile, the audience is wondering what this corporate espionage has to do with Monster Island, because we paid good money to see a Godzilla movie, dammit, and instead Gengo runs into the girl, Machiko (Tomoko Umeda) and some dude that looks like a hippie, Shosaku (Minoru Takashima) who are out to prove this corporations plans for "peace" are anything but. And, of course, they are right: (SPOILERS) Kubota and Suda are Space Cockroaches using the bodies of dead humans to take over Earth. Why? Well, the planet they come from has been destroyed by pollution and while Earth is also on that path, they're Space Cockroaches and they figure they can curtail it, or something.

 That part of their plan isn't really covered in depth - mostly the film is concerned with the part of their plan that involves killing Godzilla. The tape is one of two parts that, when played, controls Gigan and King Ghidorah in space and will bring them to Earth. But not to kill Godzilla. Oh no, that would be too simple: (MORE SPOILERS) they use them to lure Godzilla to the Godzilla Tower at World Children's Park to shoot lasers at the Big G, because they love technology.

 Gengo, Machiko, and Shosaku play part of the tape and obviously can't understand it (it's in monster), but Godzilla hears that shit and sends Anguirus to check it out. If you don't remember Anguirus, I wouldn't blame you, but he's the kaiju that looks like a spiked armadillo, and is notable for the fact that you feel bad for the "Man in Suit" who has to crawl around and be mostly submerged while swimming to Japan from Monster Island (by comparison, Godzilla is mostly head above water). He kind of sucks and when the Japanese military attack him for trying to come ashore, he says "forget this" and swims back to Monster Island. I can't blame him - he was just doing what Godzilla said to do, nobody said anything about rocket attacks. Sheesh.

 Speaking of which, when Godzilla and Anguirus come back to Japan later in the film, the head of the Defense Force says they "escaped" but it didn't look to me like there was anybody guarding Monster Island. It just seemed more like they kick it on the island, not bothering humans, and come visit if they feel like. I honestly wasn't that familiar with the concept of "continuity" in Godzilla movies, so I apologize if this is a plot element from one of the other eleven movies I forgot about.

 Unlike Anguirus, Godzilla is totally welcome when he gets to Tokyo, or maybe the Defense Force is just too worried about King Ghidorah and Gigan destroying everything to notice. Gigan is the new threat in this movie, and he has metal claws and feat, a metal beak, and a buzzsaw in his stomach so that he can do fly-by's and really ruin someone's day. Godzilla, specifically, but I imagine that it wouldn't be fun for other kaiju to be in his path. Because Anguirus is useless when it comes to almost everything, the Big G has to take on both of the monsters and the Tower, and I'm not going to sugarcoat this: he gets his ass kicked. There's some serious bloodletting here, which was impressive in that I wasn't expecting (SPOILER) to see Gigan fly by and slice Godzilla in the neck with his blade, or the accompanying arterial spray. It's pretty brutal stuff.

 Fortunately our stupid human heroes (SPOILER AGAIN) blow up the Tower by putting dynamite in the elevator behind a drawing of them (good job, Gengo, I guess?) and getting the goons to shoot it. It sucks to be the Space Cockroaches, even though they get an emotional death scene about their hubris which is amusing because you're literally looking at two cockroaches with flames superimposed over them. Their grand plan was for naught, but now that they're no longer controlling Gigan and King Ghidorah, the fighting just becomes about who is the bigger kaiju badass. If you think Godzilla will prevail, you might be right, but not before he gets his ass handed to him some more.

 At some point, Anguirus remembers that he can propel himself backwards and into King Ghidorah, which might have come in handy, oh, any time during their fight, but what are you gonna do. Godzilla has Ghidorah in a three head lock, and he motions for Anguirus to do the only thing he does best, and then to do it again, and then again. I guess they follow the "comedy rule of threes" in kaiju movies, because Godzilla then gives Ghidorah three "belly to neck" suplexes until the King and Gigan decide they've had enough of a whupping and fly back into space. The Big G and Anguirus swim back to Monster Island while a lounge singer extolls their heroism. Godzilla even looks back when Tomoko yells "Thanks!" and kinda waves.

 This idea of Godzilla being less of a threat and more of a "monster we can count on to beat up other monsters" seems to be the prevailing theme in Godzilla on Monster Island, which is also how we seem to view him in the considerably higher budgeted version from this year. Director Gareth Edwards (Monsters, not the sequel to the Charlize Theron movie or the prequel to Monsters University - a pre-prequel, I suppose) doesn't really make any effort to reintroduce Godzilla's origin story to us, and nor should he. The opening credits cover some of the imagery associated with Gojira and uses a clever redaction technique, and later in the film there's a very quick "here's how we know that Godzilla exists" exposition scene from Project Monarch's Dr. Ishiro Serizawa (KenWatanabe) and Vivienne Graham (Sally Hawkins).

 What's much more interesting about that scene is Serizawa's total faith that Godzilla exists as a natural balancing force when monsters get out of hand. Since Pacific Rim already used "kaiju" in an American movie from a foreign director, Edwards opts for MUTO, or Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism (I had to look it up because I forgot the "massive" part). It's a good way to get people to remember what to call them instead of "thing that looks like the Cloverfield Monster" and "other thing that looks like the Cloverfield Monster, but with wings." They feed on radiation and are using echo location to tell each other it's time to get it on. Godzilla is listening in on this (from under the sea, not Monster Island), and will have none of that. No monster scrogging on his watch, thank you very much. Think of him as the Jason Voorhees of kaijus.

 Anyway, as one MUTO heads from Japan to the West Coast of the U.S. to meet the other one, Admiral Stenz (David Strathairn) and his fleet follow, with Godzilla swimming along, sometimes in between the ships. It is an admittedly very cool visual, and I like that Edwards conveys just how big Godzilla is in relation to the ships with the water displacement. It plays a major factor when the Big G gets to San Francisco and (SPOILER for X-Men: The Last Stand, Pacific Rim, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Mega Shark vs. Giant Octopus, and this movie) destroys the Golden Gate bridge. In Godzilla's defense, he was a little pissed off that the Navy opened fire on him so that he wouldn't destroy the bridge. I guess that's ironic? Maybe?

 Like Godzilla on Monster Island, we spend the lion's share of the movie with people we couldn't care less about; in this case it's Kick Ass's Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Marcy Martha May Marlene's Elizabeth Olsen, who display the necessarily sibling chemistry that will no doubt be needed from them in The Avengers: The Age of Ultron,when they play Quicksilver and The Scarlet Witch (no relation to Magneto by ruling of 20th Century Fox, thank you.) The problem is that they're supposed to be married and he spends most of the movie trying to get home to her, and yeah, can we please get to Godzilla fighting the MUTOs, thank you very much.

 I am only partially kidding there, because while neither of them are that bad or boring, I really didn't care about either of them. Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche have more chemistry in the five minutes they're on screen together as Taylor-Johnston's parents than he does with Olsen in the entire film. Hell, Watanabe and Hawkins have more chemistry, and they aren't even a couple as far as I could tell.

 Speaking of Bryan Cranston, I hate to tell all of the Breaking Bad fans who were telling me that he was the reason they were so excited to see this some bad news, but here it is: he's not in much of the movie. (STORY ARC SPOILERS) Cranston is in the beginning of the movie, during the meltdown at the nuclear plant he and his wife (Binoche) work at (Janjira) and then he is regarded as a "conspiracy" nut fifteen years later for being convinced it wasn't a meltdown. He is, of course, right, and his son is with him when the first MUTO hatches at the plant, and then he dies... after the walkway he's on collapses. Not even a cool way to go, and then he just dies on the helicopter ride out of there. So yeah, maybe Kick-Ass fans should be more excited to see this, because he's in most of the movie.

 Taylor-Johnston is Lt. Brody, whose job description is "guy who disarms bombs for the military" and who can command the respect of soldiers without providing any credentials at all. He ends up arming a nuclear missile with old fashioned technology that EMP's the MUTOs can release won't knock out. That was weird because the arming mechanism resembled the one I saw the night before in Goldfinger, so head's up if you're planning to watch Goldfinger in the same time frame as Godzilla 2014.

 I'm not really sure what the position on nuclear weapons is in this film, as it's both bad (the MUTOs feed on it and steal the missile) and good(?) (if what I think happened at the end did happen, then that's what maybe saves Godzilla from the epic beat down he endured). Anyway, I guess it's okay that Brody got the bomb out to sea but didn't disarm it and was somehow far away enough from the shore that nobody gets massive doses of radiation while outside the following morning. And Godzilla got enough of a recharge that he was good to go when everybody thought he died. Haha, fooled you guys!

 But in all seriousness Godzilla 2014 is pretty good stuff. I give it some grief but generally speaking the monster fights at the end are worth the price of admission. I liked that Edwards decided to show most of the MUTO mayhem from the perspective of the people on the ground, where they lose sight of monsters in the dust or are falling from a carrier plane and can see part of Godzilla as the descend through the clouds. It's a good visual hook for the film and does convey the sense of carnage better than the obvious miniatures in Godzilla on Monster Island. Although those miniatures are pretty funny looking and are actually being smashed (or being burned with a flamethrower, in the case of tanks) I did chuckle every time Strathairn said "Godzilla," which wasn't nearly as often as I'd hoped.. In most ways, the newer film has the better budget and conveys the power and size of Godzilla better, but it also doesn't have Space Cockroaches.

 And let's be honest here, if you had your druthers, if I offered you a Godzilla movie with your choice of "Cloverfield Monsters" or Space Cockroaches, I think I know which one you'd take. Either way, you're not going to regret it, but Space Cockroaches. I mean, come on.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Blogorium Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel

 Almost ten years ago, the Cap'n and Professor Murder (now Dr. Murder) went to see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, the first Wes Anderson film in two years, and the director's fourth film to date. While you could argue that with Rushmore and The Royal Tenenbaums, it was pretty clear what kind of design and filmmaking aesthetic Anderson gravitated towards, the concept of "Wes Anderson"-y movies had not yet really settled into the consciousness of his fans. Bottle Rocket wasn't quite clear - the result of a filmmaker with a distinct voice working on a relatively low budget - but Rushmore and Tenenbaums gave some indication of Anderson's meticulous approach to set design, camera movement, blocking, and hinted that he was putting together an acting "company" of sorts.

 The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was, from my perspective, the moment that Wes Anderson as an auteur crystallized, for better or for worse. Professor Murder didn't especially like the film, and after he begrudgingly agreed to see it a second time with another mutual friend, I could tell that realizing what a "Wes Anderson Film" was going to be from here on out wasn't thrilling to him. It's not even actually the most divisive film among Anderson fans - that seems to be split evenly between The Darjeeling Limited and Fantastic Mr. Fox - but it was the indicator that one shouldn't expect much of an "objective" reality in his universe from here on out. That, you could argue, was not the case for his first three films. From here on out, we would increasingly be taken to worlds uniquely of Anderson's creation, and you either were on board or you weren't.

 Skip forward (nearly) ten years, and Anderson is two years removed from Moonrise Kingdom and returning with The Grand Budapest Hotel, which may be the most "Wes Anderson"-y of his films yet. Already it's become something of a bellwether for casual to regular Anderson fans. While I am convinced that Anderson took advantage of some actual locations, the level of artifice on display is truly impressive, and Anderson's degree of control over every element now extends to the aspect ratio(s) of the film: one for each time period covered (1932, 1968, and 1985*).

 Inspired by the work of Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig, The Grand Budapest Hotel opens at the grave of an Author, tombstone covered in keys. A young woman sits down with her copy of The Grand Budapest Hotel, and our journey begins. The framing shifts (slightly) as we meet the Author (Tom Wilkinson) in 1985, dictating (or reading) the introduction to the book, and then flashes back to 1968, when a younger Author (Jude Law) is staying at the titular hotel, now largely abandoned and soon to close. By chance, he happens to be in the lobby chatting with concierge M. Jean (Jason Schwartzmann) and sees the reclusive owner of the Grand Budapest, Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham). While chatting, Moustafa agrees to tell the Author the story of how he came into possession of the hotel. In the short span of ten minutes, we've already moved from 1.85:1 to 2.35:1, but the bulk of the film (spent in Zero's flashbacks) will be in the "Academy" ratio of 1.33:1.

 The Grand Budapest Hotel breathlessly moves from one event to another, all centered around young Zero (newcomer Tony Revolori)'s burgeoning career as the Grand Budapest's Lobby Boy, under the tutelage of M. Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). M. Gustave is the impeccably mannered, well dressed, and overly perfumed renaissance man about the Grand Budapest, able to deliver on any promise made to his clientele, and perhaps a few more for older women. One, in particular, Madame D. (Tilda Swinton) - and get used to it, Anderson operates mostly on first names with last initials, or none at all - who has a premonition of her death. M. Gustave thinks nothing of it until she actually does die, and at the outset of a possible world war, he and Zero travel to her home and encounter her unsavory children, who accuse him of murder. A murder mystery is underway, and one that Gustave must prove himself innocent of if he hopes to ever see his inheritance, the painting "Boy with Apple" - a late addendum to Madame D.'s Will.

 To say much more would ruin the fun of what is, in essence, a Wes Anderson version of a screwball comedy. There are arguably more characters in The Grand Budapest Hotel than Moonrise Kingdom, introduced at a rapid pace, and some dispatched just as quickly by Jopling (Willem Dafoe) the henchman of Dmitri (Adrien Brody), Madame D.'s greedy son. Dafoe is playing the human version of his character in Fantastic Mr. Fox, but one prone to more bursts of extreme violence. This may, in fact, be the most violent of Anderson's films, not merely limited to what we do and don't see but to the suddenness of it. If dog lovers were shocked at Moonrise Kingdom, cat lovers may well be surprised by a (pun fully intended) throwaway joke involving Jopling and a Persian in the office of Deputy Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), the assigned Executor of Madame D.'s estate. It leads to something arguably more shocking involving a door, and a bit of misdirection about the fate of Zero's girlfriend, Agatha (Saoirse Ronan).

 It might be fair to say that the violence, like everything else, is exaggerated in The Grand Budapest Hotel. Anderson's use of miniatures, a fixture in one degree or the other since The Life Aquatic, is more apparent this time, in particular during transitional scenes. In some instances, like the rail car to and from hotel, it isn't quite as noticeable, but for an extended period in the film (from the observatory to the end of the ski chase sequence), it's almost distractingly obvious. By the same token, this is the world Anderson is creating, one slight more heightened and appropriate for a screwball comedy. That said, it's inherent artificiality might be off-putting to fans of Anderson who prefer some degree of reality to balance the picture. This may be at the heart of why The Darjeeling Limited is so divisive: Anderson brings his fastidious shot construction to real locations and finds the delicate balance, one not readily available to him in the manufactured interiors of The Royal Tenenbaums. Moonrise Kingdom and Rushmore, for me at least, find the best balance, but it really does depend on what you gravitate towards Wes Anderson films for.

 The shot composition is, as always, impeccable, and Anderson's ability to adjust the shifting aspect ratios without compromising his attention to detail is admirable. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a marvelous film to look at, even as the gimmickry draws attention to itself. For the most part, the film is set in 1932, so it's not terribly distracting, but it's hard to argue that the ratios are there for anything other than their own sake. The 1985 and 2014(?) sections are so brief that they barely merit their own, separate ratios. None of this would really be noticeable if it were in service to the story, or that the story were enough to speak for itself, but Anderson and Hugo Guinness (the voice of Bunce in Fantastic Mr. Fox and Eli Cash's surrogate painter) constructed a story of interesting characters, if not a particularly compelling narrative.

 Not to do a disservice to the excellent cast (and I'll get to them in a moment), but the "mystery" of The Grand Budapest Hotel is never really a mystery, as we know almost immediately what happened to Madame D., who did it, and why. The only thing we don't know is why exactly old Zero is so reticent to talk about Agatha, and the resolution to that is almost a throwaway line of narration near the end. It is a fine film to watch, and great fun to see in the execution of its structure, but The Grand Budapest Hotel lacks a certain something, an intangible quality to the story that resonates. I'll certainly watch the film again, and the characters are more accessible than those in Darjeeling (or even The Life Aquatic), but Moonrise Kingdom and, in particular, Rushmore had a more lasting impact after the first viewing.

 Having been slightly deflated by the window dressing surrounding a mostly empty room, I cannot in good conscience tell you that is in any way due to the cast. To a person, The Grand Budapest Hotel's dramatis personae brings everything they have to even the smallest roles. This includes Bill Murray, who is barely in the film but makes an impression beyond his handlebar moustache as one of the members of the "Crossed Key Society," who to say anything more about would do a disservice to the second half of the film. The Society includes a few other Anderson alumni, as well as a newcomer to the Anderson Players, but a familiar face and welcome addition. If you're looking for Anderson regulars, you'll find almost all of them (no sign of Luke Wilson, but Owen pops up), including new additions from Moonrise Kingdom: Edward Norton, Harvey Keitel, and the aforementioned Tilda Swinton all play important roles in the story.

 Swinton, as I understand it, came in to replace Angela Lansbury when scheduling conflicts prevented the latter from playing Madame D., and she isn't in the film much but makes quite an impression with some very good old age makeup (seriously, if there's such a thing as the opposite of Guy Pearce's Prometheus makeup, this is it). I was a bit surprised to hear that the initial casting of Johnny Depp was for M. Gustave, as I honestly can't imagine him in the role. He's more suited for Dmitri, and not just because Adrien Brody's physical appearance in the film resembles Depp's, but M. Gustave H. is such a tightly wound character that it wouldn't make sense. That brings us to the final - and perfect - choice for M. Gustave (as odd as it might seem): Ralph Fiennes.

 Conceptually, I suppose it sounds odd that Ralph Fiennes is in a Wes Anderson film, particularly one as silly as The Grand Budapest Hotel is, but in execution he's a marvel. Fiennes brings a level of distinction that is sharply at odds with M. Gustave's profane outbursts later in the film. His performance is hilarious not merely because you wouldn't expect it from him, but that he commits to the character so deeply that you never doubt he IS M. Gustave. Paired for most of the picture with Tony Revolori - himself an excellent discovery - Fiennes inhabits the screwball spirit of Grand Budapest and is easily the high point of the film. Even if you're lukewarm on Wes Anderson, I would easily recommend The Grand Budapest Hotel just for Fiennes and Revolori.

 I will openly admit to a giddy sensation during the beginning of The Grand Budapest Hotel, as I often have when seeing a Wes Anderson film for the first time. As the film went on, I alternated between admiration for the technical aspects of the Auteur and realizing that I was more impressed with the story than I actually enjoyed it. Don't get me wrong, this is not a film that's a chore to watch, nor does it ever drag, but The Grand Budapest Hotel didn't grab me in the same way that some of Anderson's films do. I would be hard pressed to call this a "lesser" film in his catalog, but I can see why it might end up being another dividing line, as The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou was. I concede that, for the moment, The Grand Budapest Hotel is a (very entertaining) exercise in form over function. Is it possible that changes the next time I see it (and I will)? Quite possibly. The Cap'n is predisposed to follow Wes Anderson down the rabbit hole - less so his imitators - but it's hard to argue that this is not his most "Wes Anderson"-y film to date, for better or for worse.

 * The film opens and closes with a book-end section about a girl visiting the Author's grave, which one might safely assume takes place in the present, but it seems to have the same aspect ratio as the 1985 scenes.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Blogorium Review: The Outlaw Josey Wales

 When you finish watching The Outlaw Josey Wales, it's common to think "damn, now that was a great movie," whether it's the first time you've seen it or the fiftieth. There's a good reason for that, and that reason is Clint Eastwood. Sure, that whole stand up routine at the RNC two years ago made some people think that "Old Clint is just senile or becoming his character from Gran Torino," and I'm not saying it wasn't a horrible idea on the part of the scheduling department - it was - but now people feel like they have a license to just forget that he made some of the best damned movies in the last fifty years, and a lot of them he did it in front of and behind the camera.

 Some people remember the cop movies, some prefer the westerns, and others like the oddball ones, like Kelly's Heroes, Any Which Way You Can, or, uh, Paint Your Wagon. I tend to prefer the westerns, if only because he's been in or made so many iconic ones that when you start listing them, it quickly balloons into a big list. Go ahead, I'll spot you Leone's "Man with No Name Trilogy" and Unforgiven. But there's also The High Plains Drifter, Two Mules for Sister Sarah, The Beguiled, Hang 'em High. Hell, some people even like Pale Rider. I don't really (it's a little too much like High Plains Drifter with a dash of Shane), but what many folks tend to agree on is that their favorite Clint Eastwood western is The Outlaw Josey Wales, and with good reason.

 (It actually starts out as a "Southern," as Quentin Tarantino called Django Unchained, picking up in Missouri and moving southwest into Texas, but we'll stick with Western.)

 Eastwood does something really interesting, possibly even precarious, with the film (and the character) Josey Wales: he makes you sympathize with a Confederate solider who refuses to admit the Civil War is over. Now, there are some good reasons that Josey Wales might not feel like his score has been settled, chief among them is why he joined up with the Southern army. Slavery doesn't come up in the film at all, as I recall, and Wales doesn't really seem to have any vested interest in which side wins the war from a philosophical standpoint*. He was just a normal man living in Missouri, working on his farm with his wife and young son, when a group of "Red Legs" came pillaging and raping through, and Wales loses his wife and child in one fell swoop, along with his house. I mean, what's the point of pillaging and raping if you don't also burn down a man's house for no reason?

 The leader of the Red Legs, Terrill (Bill McKinney) also gives Wales a nasty scar on the right side of his face by slicing him with his sword and leaving Josey for dead. After he buries his wife and child, Wales teaches himself how to shoot a pistol and silently swears revenge (Eastwood doesn't say much early in the film), and when a group of Bushwackers find the remains of his farm, he joins up with Anderson (John Russell) to chase the down the Red Legs, who happen to be raiding in the name of the Union. During the opening credits, there's a montage of their battles to give you a better idea of time passing (it's not really clear how long it takes for Josey to learn to shoot accurately before the posse arrives) and that Anderson didn't make it. Then the film proper picks up at the end of the Civil War where, at least for Josey Wales, justice has not been served.

 In fact, it's being openly mocked, in a sense, because the Union Camp they're just outside of is one being run by Senator James H. Lane (Frank Schofield) and his Red Legs are there. Not only that, but he's promoted Terrill to Captain, and is promising that any Confederate soldier who comes down and swears and oath of loyalty to the Union will be spared. Fletcher (John Vernon), a member of the crew that Wales rides with, is tired of fighting and talks the men into going down to end things. But Wales, he's a stubborn sort, and this isn't over for him. He and Fletcher part on good terms, with Fletcher warning him what's to come - that he'll be hunted all over the country - and Wales saying "I reckon so." Fletcher wishes him good luck and goes down to the camp.

 But you can't trust Lane or his Red Legs hooligans, and if it sounds too good too be true or just like it's a trap to gun down some more Confederate soldiers in cold blood, you'd better believe it is. Fletcher didn't know that he was being set up when negotiating with Senator Lane, or that Terrill was even with the camp, but when Wales rides in and wipes out the Union soldiers with one of their own Gatling guns, he becomes the Outlaw Josey Wales. He saves Jamie (Sam Bottoms), a kid who didn't want to surrender, and leaves thinking that Fletcher betrayed them all. For all his good intentions, Fletcher is consigned by Senator Lane into joining Terrill in hunting down Wales, and the great showdown is set in place.

 And that's the first thirty minutes! We haven't even met most of the really interesting characters and the stakes are already high. Jamie is, alas (SPOILER), not going to be with us for the long haul, as he took a bullet in the shoulder from Terrill, but he sticks around long enough for Josey to show a snake oil salesman (Woodrow Parfey) what a "Missouri River Ride" looks like. By the way, the salesman is only given the name Carpetbagger in the credits, and his other primary attribute is getting his suit dirty. It's the first time in the film that I really noticed that Josey Wales is always spitting tobacco, but not the last. After a run in with some would-be ransom collectors (Wales has a $5000 price on his head), Josey and Jamie head for "Indian" territory, but only one of them makes it. And the movie isn't called "The Outlaw Jamie Whose Name I Don't Know."

 (Wales tries to qualify using Jamie's dead body to distract a cavalry campsite by saying "they'll give you a better burial than I ever could," but I have to say it's still pretty cold to use your dead buddy like that.)

 It's highly possible that the reason you forget that The Outlaw Josey Wales is about a Confederate soldier is that Eastwood and screenwriters Philip Kaufman and Sonia Chernus shift the focus to the plight of Native Americans before, during, and after the Civil War, drawing parallels between Southern and Native attitudes towards the Government. Once Wales passes through into Native Territory, he encounters a series of instances of subjugation and trickery on the part of the United States, through members of the Cherokee, Navajo, and later, Comanche tribes. Wales meets Lone Watie (Chief Dan George), a member of the "civilized" Cherokees, who tried to dress "like Lincoln" and were repaid for it by being sent down the Trail of Tears. Chief Dan George is the first indication that the film isn't going to be grim and gritty all the way through, as he's consistently funny without being the butt of the joke. It's also where we start seeing the actual structure of the film, which is more episodic in nature than the opening would lead you to believe.

 That's not actually a bad thing, because Wales doesn't talk much, so it's nice to have other characters for him to react to. Without meaning to (or really wanting to, either), he ends up creating a new family of misfits that he picks up along his trip south through Texas and into Mexico. First it's Lone Watie, then Little Moonlight (Geraldine Kearns), who he saves from unscrupulous types at a trading post. Later he rescues Grandma Sarah (Paula Trueman) and her granddaughter Laura Lee (Sondra Locke) from Comanchers, and they come along too, heading for a ranch Sarah's son owned outside of Santa Rio. Well, Santa Rio turns out to be a ghost town, so they pick up a few more stragglers on the way, and it's a big, happy family of characters living in a ranch with Josey Wales keeping an eye on them. They even have a mangy dog that Wales doesn't seem to like and is constantly spitting on, which is funnier in context than it sounds.

 The episodic nature of The Outlaw Josey Wales tends to make you forget that Terrill and Fletcher are still on his tail, and you don't see a whole lot of them, but you always remember that our hero is a wanted man. Nearly everywhere they end up, Wales a) meets somebody who joins up with their traveling band of misfits, b) runs into somebody who wants to bring him in and gets gunned down, or (more often) c) both. I don't think there's anywhere that Wales stops along the way where he doesn't kill somebody, if not several somebodies, usually because he's recognized at an inopportune time. The Carpetbagger shows up again while they're picking up supplies, and in his infinite wisdom, he decides to say "It's Josey Wales!" out loud in front of four Union soldiers. Wales has to drop his purchases, taunt the boys, and eventually kills three of them (Watie gets the other one, so Josey "paid him no mind"), but it takes a while because they're clearly not sure they want to get in a gunfight with the outlaw.

 Josey Wales has a kind of mythic quality to him throughout the film; he's almost a Snake Plissken of the Reconstruction. Everybody knows who he is or has heard of him, and while that usually doesn't help him in civilized society, it really comes in handy late in the film. Josey Wales is the kind of person who could ride into the middle of a Comanche camp and negotiate with their Chief, Ten Bears (Will Sampson of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest fame) and not immediately be killed. In fact, Ten Bears already knows who Josey Wales is, the "grey rider who would not make peace with the Bluecoats", and tells him "you may go in peace" before they've even started talking business. Wales had been preparing the ranch for a Comanche raid, but decided he'd go to them first, and he offers Ten Bears the "iron of life or death." By the end of the conversation, they're in agreement as blood brothers: like Mark Renton at the end of Trainspotting, these dudes choose life.

 He's also kind of mythical to the other people traveling with him, because as best as I can remember, he never tells anybody why he's so stubborn about not giving in. Only the audience knows what happened to his family - Grandma Sarah just thought he was a bloodthirsty savage from Missouri (she really doesn't like people who aren't from Kansas), and Lone Watie never asks (there's just a mutual understanding between them). Laura Lee is kind of crazy, and she doesn't wake up after he has nightmare flashbacks, so it never comes up. As far as I know, Fletcher might be the only person in the movie who has any idea why Josey Wales refuses to submit. For everybody else, he's an enigma.

 Wales is also a mythic figure in that he never has to reload his pistol. It's something I noticed early on, when he's teaching himself how to shoot, but you realize that it doesn't matter. Josey Wales is something out of legend, and Eastwood only makes a point of showing that he's out of ammunition once. It happens late in the film, as a symbolic gesture leading up to (SPOILER) killing Terrill - Wales goes through all of his pistols, firing the empty chambers one by one, until he's right up on Terrill, and then he kills him in either the most appropriate or ironic way possible, depending on which person you are in that fight. At that moment, he doesn't need guns that never need reloading, but don't doubt for a second that he could totally go back to gunning down bounty hunters if he wanted to.

 The final moments of the film are what really cement The Outlaw Josey Wales as a "great damn movie." Yes, we've seen Wales become a little more human at the ranch, and single-handedly talk Ten Bears out of killing everybody, but what we've really been waiting for is the moment when he and Fletcher meet face to face again. After regrouping, Wales promised Jamie they'd go "back for Fletcher," so we know that the Terrill treatment was just a taste of the vengeance to come, right?

  I've spoiled a lot of this movie, mostly because if you're reading this and you haven't seen The Outlaw Josey Wales, you'd better rectify that immediately, but I won't spoil the last part of the movie. I will say that their last encounter is every bit as appropriate as the one they have outside of the Union Camp. Two men who are tired of being what they are but aren't sure how to reconcile the past with the present, forced to cross paths one more time. It's such a great way to end the movie, so appropriate considering where both of them have been, that I'd rather let you see that for yourself. Also I might have left out another joke about the Carpetbagger's suite, and I'm opting not to tell you anything about Lone Watie and Little Moonlight. Some things you should find out for yourself.

 Maybe there needs to be a series on the Blogorium devoted to "great damn movies," but it needs a better name than that. When I think of a good one, there's one movie that deserves similar examination:

                                      The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

 * On the other hand, the author of the book the film is based on, "Forrest" Carter - actually Asa Earl Carter - was a noted segregationist, member of the KKK, and anti-Semite. Eastwood was not aware of this when he made the movie, but it explains quite a bit about the thematic content of the story.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Quick Review(s): Non-Stop, Bye Bye Birdie, and Die, Monster, Die!

 Even the Cap'n has strange weekends, sometimes: while it should come as no surprise to you that I'm watching more movies than are being reviewed as of late, some weekends, even I can't account for the unusual combinations. This past weekend, for example, I sat down to watch Drive Hard and barely got through it, despite the potentially winning combination of Thomas Jane, John Cusack, and director Brian Trenchard-Smith. Then, because that was such a disaster, I watched Summer Fest alumnus Death Spa (this time on Blu-Ray) and was surprised at the level of talent behind the camera in the accompanying documentary (perhaps more on that at another point).

 Then, for reasons known only to me, I decided it was time to figure out whether I had really seen all of Bye Bye Birdie or not (I had), and then to check out an H.P. Lovecraft adaptation I didn't realize existed, Die, Monster, Die!, before closing things out with the latest "Liam Neeson 'special set of skills' Action Movie," Non-Stop. Because that's clearly a balanced weekend, right? A little action, a dash of musical comedy, and an AIP cash-in on the success of Roger Corman's The Haunted Palace.

 (To put it in perspective, the previous weekend included X-Men: Days of Future Past, Persona, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre)

 Let's take a look at this unorthodox weekend-long triple feature, shall we?

 Bye Bye Birde - Full disclosure: Bye Bye Birdie is not my favorite musical. It isn't even close (coming in well behind The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Oklahoma, or Cannibal! The Musical), but it was a production I was involved in during high school, in a strictly "behind the scenes" capacity. Our mantra, particularly during musicals, seemed to be "copy the movie" when producing the play, so I'm certain the technical theater crew watched Bye Bye Birdie (as we did with Oklahoma and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying), but I couldn't remember if I'd ever seen it from beginning to end, so as I had the Twilight Time Blu-Ray from an order last month (with Wild at Heart and Used Cars), it seemed like a good time to find out.

 (It's worth pointing out that I've never seen any other production of Bye Bye Birdie - including [until very recently] the one I was involved in - so any mentions of "changes" is based entirely on what I know of the play as we did it vs. the film. I also have no idea how many other productions model themselves after the film, so the previous paragraph wasn't meant to disparage our drama department. Maybe everybody does that.)

 The film adaptation certainly has a fine cast, not limited to a star-making performance by Ann-Margret, although she nearly lost me with the opening song. It takes a little while to get accustomed to the way she sings, particularly the title song, which in all honestly I found to be a little shrill and abrasive (it's not actually part of the stage production), but I stuck with it. I wanted to see Dick Van Dyke as Albert and Janet Leigh as Rosie, and an early appearance by Ed Sullivan didn't hurt, either (his role in the film is more significant, one of several changes in adapting the play). I also knew that I had Paul Lynde - Kim MacAfee (Ann-Margret)'s father, Harry  - to look forward to. After all, I'd already seen him sing "Kids" on his Halloween Special.

Other than the title song, I found that I enjoyed most of the numbers in Bye Bye Birdie, although there are less of them than in the play (Rosie has at least one song cut, along with another song distracting reporters from asking questions about Conrad), but by necessity we also removed all of Hugo Peabody's songs - the actor playing him wasn't a singer - something that wasn't an issue for pop star Bobby Rydell, who is arguably a better singer than Jesse Pearson, the titular character. While I had largely forgotten about how much the movie deviates from the stage production, I found myself enjoying (and recalling) moving songs around - "Put on a Happy Face" in the MacAfees' back yard with Rosie, and almost immediately following "One Boy." Perhaps it was my general ignorance about Janet Leigh, but I didn't realize she was going to be singing, or, more impressively, be directly involved in the gymnastic elements of the Shriner dance. Watching the long, mostly unbroken takes, Leigh is, as best I could tell, being flipped around without the benefit of a double.

 Reading a bit about the movie, I hadn't realized that Dick Van Dyke and Paul Lynde weren't fond of the adaptation (both were in the original play), and that the former in particular felt it showcased Ann-Margret too much. It is true that the teaser trailer is strictly about Ann-Margaret and just barely finds time to mention anyone else, but even with the lion's share of screen time (and to be honest, Albert and Rosie get a lot of the middle of the film to themselves), she's not a low point in any way. If there was anybody who I felt underwhelmed by in Bye Bye Birdie, it's Conrad Birdie.

 Pinpointing exactly what's so problematic about Conrad is tricky - part of it is that director George Sidney toned down the "Lothario" part of Birdie, and aside from one quick mention of needing a "church key" to open his beer, he's not much of a louse in the film, either. Instead, Conrad is strangely muted, not particularly charismatic, and in no way deserving of the attention he gets from the girls of Sweet Apple, Ohio. I know that he's based in some capacity on Elvis (which is how most people seem to picture him), but my understanding was that the composers (Charles Strouse and Lee Adams) actually designed the character more around Conway Twitty. There's a rumor that Elvis was approached to play Birdie in the film, was interested, but Colonel Parker didn't want him parodying his image. No offense to Jesse Pearson, but it might have at least given Conrad more "oomph." He barely makes an impression for being the titular character, to the point that the Moscow Ballet portion of the Ed Sullivan Show at the end of the film is more interesting than "One Last Kiss."

 Bookending title song and Birdie aside, there's a lot to like about Bye Bye Birdie, much of which centers around Dick Van Dyke. Mary Poppins fans should keep a close eye out during "Put on a Happy Face" to see an early version of his "penguin" dance. He elevates a largely reactive character in a way that Rydell similarly doesn't (no fault of his - Hugo isn't much to work with). It's hard to argue that Ann-Margret isn't the centerpiece of the film, and she certainly makes a splash. I imagine she had some interesting conversations with Presley during the filming of Viva Las Vegas...

 Non-Stop - I suppose the easy joke here would be to say that "Non-Stop is more of a non-starter," but the truth is that for a healthy chunk of its mid-section, the film is a serviceable to pretty good thriller with enough unfolding plot developments to keep you invested. That all falls apart if you take any time to think carefully about the story, but by the time you realize what he / she / them are actually up to, it won't even matter. It's a ridiculous explanation, followed by an even more implausible climax that will leave you shaking your head. But I've gotten ahead of myself, haven't I?

 Bill Marks (Liam Neeson) is an Air Marshall on a routine trip from New York to London, when he receives a mysterious text on his secured phone. A passenger aboard the plane threatens Bill that if he doesn't transfer 150 million dollars to a private account, someone will die every twenty minutes. Marks isn't just going to let this happen, but without causing panic on the plane, who can he trust?

 That's the set-up for the film, and for the most part the entire plot, for better, for worse. Most people are really just coming because Liam Neeson is in the film and he has a gun on the poster, which brings us to his "particular set of skills" in this film, which are drinking and being a grizzled Air Marshall who hates flying. I think he's also supposed to be good at observing people, or at least that what the hazy shots of passengers led me to believe. Mostly he's good at profiling, as he picks out people who look the most threatening (and are, of course, not at all), but since most of Non-Stop is predicated on not being able to trust anybody on the flight Bill is on from New York to London, I guess it's okay for director Jaume Collet-Serra (Unknown)  to prey on our jingoistic prejudices at the outset, since he's going to totally blow our minds later in the movie. (SPOILER ALERT: the "Suspicious Muslim" stereotype is a doctor and the vaguely Easter European dude who doesn't say anything until halfway through the film is an NYPD officer. Gotcha, racist audience members!).

 Now I'm being unfair to some degree, because Collet-Serra and screenwriters John W. Richardson, Christopher Roach, and Ryan Engle do a fair bit of twisting our expectations around, even if they sometimes cheat a little bit to do it. Since we know almost nothing about any character other than Bill until well into the movie, the audience is left only with our preconceived notions about "suspicious" people on airplanes, which they toy with repeatedly. The mystery of who is sending Bill these messages (which eventually appear on screen, so we don't have to also look at his tiny phone throughout the film) and how people are going to die on a crowded flight is a pretty good one. In fact, the execution of the plan goes in a few unexpected directions early on, to the point that I was pleasantly impressed, but it doesn't last for very long. By the time that Non-Stop shifts into full on hyperbole and (SPOILER) the TSA agents believe that Marks is hijacking the plane, things strain credibility. And that's before we get to the big reveal and the even dumber thing that happens after that.

 But, just in case you wanted to watch Non-Stop, I won't give it away. It's almost ridiculous enough to recommend in and of itself, but the fact that the first half or so is also a decent game of "cat and mouse" works in its favor. In the "Liam Neeson, man of action" genre, it falls somewhere between Taken and Taken 2 - neither as enjoyable stupid as the former, nor as inane and redundant as the second. I haven't seen Unknown, so I couldn't comment, but Collet-Serra also made that, as well as Orphan, another movie with a "really?!?" twist. If you're inclined to enjoy movies like this, or saw the poster and said "I'll rent that," you're better off watching Non-Stop than, say, Drive Hard. If you're more predisposed towards, say, Neeson in The Grey, this is not going to be your cup of tea, but if you liked Flightplan... well, um, you liked Flightplan. Congratulations?

There's a surprisingly high ratio of "really, they're in this?" in Non-Stop, including Academy Award Winner Lupita Nyong'o (flight attendant "Gwen," sporting the same high-top fade she had at the Oscars), Academy Award Nominee Julianne Moore (Jen Summers, woman sitting next to Bill who ends up helping him), Guy who has been in back-to-back Best Picture Winners Scoot McNairy (Tom Bowen, dude who is going to Amsterdam), and of course, Academy Award Presenter Liam Neeson*.
Also, lots of familiar faces, like Downton Abbey's Michelle Dockery (flight attendant Nancy), Ain't Them Bodies Saints'sNate Parker (Zack, dude who Bill is a jerk to), and House of Cards and Midnight in Paris's Corey Stoll (Suspicious looking dude).

 While we're at it, why not Linus Roache (Batman Begins) as the Captain, and Anson Mount (ummm, Crossroads) as a passenger with a secret, although for a minute I thought it was Eric Bana rocking a Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code wig. But, alas, it's just Anson Mount, dude who is (SPOILER) secretly also an Air Marshall and who (BIGGER SPOILER) gets his neck broken by Bill in a pretty violent bathroom fight and who also (EVEN BIGGER SPOILER) got killed because he thought Bill knew he was smuggling a briefcase full of cocaine on the flight but (SPOILER FOR THE "BIG DUMB" ENDING) was actually smuggling a briefcase with cocaine that had a bomb hidden inside so that the mystery texter could blow the plane up. Nice job (SPOILER FOR A DIFFERENT MOVIE), "Final Boy" from All the Boys Love Mandy Lane. Bana would have had that on lock down, and wouldn't have made fun of Bill for having "drunken Liam Neeson red eye" before the flight.

  Finally, although you're likely not going to be asking "who is that guy on the phone from the TSA who won't 'negotiate with terrorists'" (e.g. Bill), it turns out to be a fairly familiar actor, particularly if you watch Boardwalk Empire. It's one last surprise, and probably the most welcome one considering that the end of this movie is so stupid that Passenger 57 looks downright plausible by comparison. Or Air Force One, for that matter. Or the one with Steven Seagal and Kurt Russell. Executive Decision? Sure, why not. That ought to give you some idea of what you're in for. But for a while, you might actually enjoy it, and depending on your level of sobriety, then you might really enjoy the ending.

 Die, Monster, Die! - Based on H.P. Lovecraft's The Colour Out of Space in the same way that The Haunted Palace is based on The Case of Charles Dexter Ward (loosely), this AIP production has some effective imagery, but finds a way to drag on long enough to make 78 minutes feel like two hours. It's not lacking in atmosphere, and Boris Karloff certainly gives as much as he possibly can (which is saying something, as the actor was in poor enough health that he spends most of the film confined to a wheelchair), but I had trouble remembering much about the film hours after finishing it.

 Lovecraft's town of Arkham, Massachusetts, is relocated to England so that American student Stephen Rinehart (Nick Adams) can travel to the Whitley manor on the outskirts of town. Nobody in Arkham wants to talk to him about the Whitleys, nor will they provide him with any means of transportation, so Rinehart has to walk. It gives us the opportunity to see the desolate lands on the outskirts of the manor, and what looks like a huge crater, surrounded by dead trees that crumble to dust when touched. After dodging a bear trap at the gate, he enters the Whitley manor to find himself unwelcome by its patriarch, Nahum Whitley (Karloff), despite having been invited by Nahum's daughter, Susan (Suzan Farmer).

 Something is obviously very wrong at the Whitley house, and Nahum's wife Letitia begs Stephen to take Susan away (they were students at an unnamed university in the U.S.), against Nahum's objections. Letitia is bedridden and refuses to let anyone see her, and Nahum is opposed to taking her to a doctor in town. Their maid went insane and lurks around the grounds under a black veil, and their butler Merwyn (Terence de Marney) is barely capable of lifting silverware without collapsing. A strange glow is coming from the (locked) greenhouse, and it's rumored that Nahum's father, Corbin Whitley, practiced black magic (because, you know, it kind of makes it sound like it's connected to The Haunted Palace, maybe?), which seems to be confirmed from the artwork scrawled in the cellar of the mansion.

 Unfortunately, for all of the mystery surrounding the Whitleys and what writer Jerry Sohl cobbled together from The Colour Out of Space and more topical concerns (circa 1965) about radiation, Die, Monster, Die! is mostly a movie about wandering around a spooky house with candles until something jumps out. Audiences who bemoan "jump" scares in modern horror films will roll their eyes at no less than three such moments in Die, Monster, Die!, all of which have the bad form to continue well after it's clear they aren't scary. There are some nice images - the matte painting of the meteor crash looks very good, and the "zoo" of deformed creatures / aliens (it's never very clear) in the greenhouse "shed" make an impression, but the pacing of the film drags on endlessly.

 Lovecraft fans will, in all likelihood, not enjoy the explanation given to why the meteorite causes strange and horrible things to happen to the vegetation (SPOILER - it's Uranium) or the way that Die, Monster, Die! devolves into a "we have to fight the monster before we escape," wherein Boris Karloff is replaced by a stuntman wearing a glowing prototype of the "Green Man" outfit under his suit. I honestly can't remember if they even explain what happens to the maid after she tries to attack Stephen and falls down, but it's not the kind of plot point I'm even worried about following up on. While I've seen worse adaptations of Lovecraft stories, I'd be hard pressed to say I've seen one that's more of a slog to get through than this one.

 * I'm just messing with you - he was nominated for Kinsey, but I had you going there for a second, didn't I?