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?

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