Monday, December 24, 2012

The Good and Bad of 2012

It's Christmas Eve once again and time to "wrap up" the year in entertainment.

On the Television Screen

I was relieved to see Dexter come roaring back after last year's ridiculous storyline. I know Michael C. Hall is working for that ol' Emmy nom but I think he's getting serious competition from ex-wife Jennifer Carpenter, who did some really fine work with her character's...uh...conflicted personality? Her confession of her love for her brother was just terrific, as was the choice to run and clutch LaGuerta's dying body after shooting her. As we head to the series' possible final season, there's nowhere to go but down. Debra is doomed and Dexter has lost whatever morality "the code" provided him. I just know someone is going to die. Deb wouldn't let Dexter go to prison and I don't think Dexter would allow himself to be caught.

Also riveting this year was The Walking Dead. Well, the season is technically not finished yet, but getting away from the farm has given the sow some welcome momentum. The creepy Governor (David Morrissey) of creepy Woodbury adds great interest, but what's the deal with Andrea (Laurie Holden) jumping into the sack with all the messed-up bastards? First it was Shane (Jon Bernthal) and now this guy? Bad choices, lady. Apropos of nothing, I think that if someone ever does a movie about the making of Last House on the Left (which is a great idea, by the way), Bernthal should play David Hess.

Probably the most affecting scene this season occurred when young Carl (Chandler Riggs), who's just shot his mother (Sarah Wayne Callies) after a gruesome and fatal Caesarean, carries the baby out to Rick (Andrew Lincoln) who, realizing what has happened, breaks down. I was simultaneously blubbering and marveling at the fact that a show about zombies was doing that to me.

The killing of Jimmy (Michael Pitt) in last season's finale of Boardwalk Empire tore the heart out of that show, I'm afraid. All we have left now are heartless bastards — even Margaret (Kelly McDonald), who is destined to become an even more heartless bastard now that her side piece Mr. Sleater (Charlie Cox) is dead. And just as we were starting to grow fond of Nucky's side piece, Billie (Meg Steedle), she explodes. At least we still have Jack Huston's Harrow, a character who's strange and enigmatic but not exactly heartwarming, but it's sad that Bobby Cannavalle's sadistic pervert, Gyp, the thorn in Nucky's side, is already toast. Now we need to see if Nucky can regain some humanity or just continue repelling (or killing) everyone who was once close to him.

Breaking Bad is definitely heading into its last season, and it's got the same dramatic conflicts Dexter does. Bryan Cranston's Walter White has transformed from a cancer-stricken family man into a hardass drug lord and pretty damn ruthless killer who even terrifies his wife (Anna Gunn). It's in those scenes with Jesse (the terrific Aaron Paul) that his humanity can still be glimpsed, and that's what helps make the show so compelling.

The added tension includes brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) is starting to get hot on his trail. And he's teamed up with Todd (Jesse Plemons), a hair-trigger douchebag who killed an innocent kid just for being there. I predict Walter will move to Central America and become the Heisenberg he always dreamed of being. Or maybe he'll get his brains blown out.

I'm looking forward to the returns of Nurse Jackie, Shameless and The Borgias, but The Big C really need to be taken off life support. By the time the douche husband Paul (Oliver Platt) become a world-famous "blogger" and hooked up with Susan Sarandon's ridiculous self-help guru while the son (Gabriel Basso) was doing his religious girlfriend in the back so she'd remain a "virgin," it was just too absurd for words.

The Cinema

2012 was really a desolate wasteland for Weird Movie Village-style movies aside from the wonderful Cabin in the Woods. To be honest, I didn't see many of the others, but hell, look at the list. A movie about demonic possession that's only PG-13 is absurd. Plus, I couldn't get that damn INXS song out of my head every time I saw the poster on a bus stand. And I've never gotten into the Underwear — er, I mean Underworld series. Worst of all, when I saw that Sinister was "from the makers of Paranormal Activity and Insidious" — any film that needs to be linked to those suckfests is required non-viewing in my book. They're not scary and they're actually insulting in their stupidity and pandering. If you must see a "found footage" film, see Chronicle.

Vincent D'Onofrio's Don't Go in the Woods turned out to be an unwatchable disappointment, and my initial interest in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter quickly cooled when I learned that screenwriter Seth Grahame-Smith was also responsible for Tim Burton's flatulent Dark Shadows revamp. Probably the biggest genre disappointment was the computer-animated Paranorman, which started out wonderfully with bizarre character design and a bent storyline, only to devolve into a Hocus Pocus ripoff (and Hocus Pocus is more fun to watch!)

Happily, films from other genres stepped in to filled the void. Darting in and out of theaters quicker than a Manhattan bike messenger was the Joseph Gordon-Levitt starrer Premium Rush, the action film for biking devotees, which is probably a rather small focus group, but being part of that community, I loved it. Also with Gordon-Levitt was Looper, which pleased the sci-fi crowd, but the absurdity-piled-upon-absurdity climax left me cold. I still roar when I watch 21 Jump Street on cable, but the initially amusing Ted has faded into a dull memory.

Robert Zemeckis' Flight will certainly bring Denzel Washington another Oscar nod, and he deserves it — his portrayal of the alcoholic, unwitting "hero" pilot demonstrates true stripped-to-the-core excellence. Gus Van Sant's Promised Land, starring and co-written by Matt Damon and John Krasinski, is getting an unfairly lukewarm reception. Sure, it wears its heart on its sleeve, but it does so in a most involving way, and Van Sant populates his film with very real characters. Matt's pal Ben Affleck did a nice job with Argo, pulling double duty as star and director. The tense opening scene reminded me of something Costa-Gavras would do. And Alan Arkin is very funny as the world-weary producer of the fake film.

Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty, torture controversy aside, is a gripping 80-minute film stretched out to almost twice that length. Of course, the critics are swooning over it, but there was never a point at which I made a visceral connection to it. Any intensity it may have had really dissipated over its bloated run time. The Hobbit, which has been slammed again and again for its length, its art direction, the HFR and crappy 3D, deserves most of the slams, but I have my reservations. Sure, Jackson is slavishly indulging his love of overblown epics, but as I recall the first LOTR in 2001 was a nightmare of boring exposition, not really clicking until we got to the second and third chapters, so who knows? I kind of enjoyed the last 40 minutes when we finally got to meet Gollum, and the climactic confrontation with the Orcs was pretty good.

The biggest surprise of the year for me had to be Life of Pi. The name and the trailer made me think that it was going to be silly, but I was wrong. We're talking about Ang Lee, after all. Has he ever made a wretched film? Whoops — The Hulk. Anyhow, I saw Life of Pi at the Arclight Hollywood in 3D and was completely transported by the opening credits with their bright, colorful, multidimensional close-ups of animals at probably the most beautiful zoo in the world. And whoever does opening credits these days? The 3D is used as judiciously as Scorsese's Hugo and the digital effects are jaw-dropping.

The Year in Music

I saw the Dandy Warhols in concert for the third time (every time at the Wiltern...hmm) and decided that I want to "Grateful Dead" them — follow them around the country and see them everywhere they play. Their newish album, "This Machine," is great, particularly the track "Autumn Carnival." I also saw the Grammy-nominated Fun at the Wiltern along with a thousand hysterical teenage girls. Oh, well...I must admit it was a good show and I got this really great picture of a confetti bomb going off over the audience. Their album, "Some Nights," with the inescapable "We Are Young," is okay, except for the songs that have too much autotune. Frontman Nate Ruess has a great voice and doesn't need to sound like Justin Lesbeaver.

Smashing Pumpkins and Counting Crows were also a treat to see this year, with the pumpkins playing "Oceania" in its entirety and then settling down to knock out some old classics including Bowie's "Space Oddity." My favorite Pumpkins event of the year, though, was the release of "Mellon Collie" on vinyl for the first time in the U.S. Crows also have a decent release, "Underwater Sunshine," which is all covers, but well-chosen, with Pure Prairie League's "Aimee" a favorite.

The very best concert I saw this year, though, had to be My Morning Jacket. Damn, that was a good show. They did many songs from 2008's "Evil Urges," which is just a terrific album. And as an added bonus, frontman Jim James' mane of long curly hair would close over his face from time to time as he sang, giving the impression that Cousin Itt was performing. At one point, I think it was during "Touch Me I'm Going to Scream pt. 2," I was totally mesmerized by the music. Looking around the audience, I saw that pretty much everyone was in the same blissed-out state that I was in.

Next year Blur needs to regroup and come to Los Angeles. That's an order. I bought the vinyl box set and even "Dr Dee." That's commitment.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Hitchcock Nobody Wanted

What could poor Alfred Hitchcock have done recently to provoke such enmity more than 30 years after his passing? Sure, it's well-known that he was an obsessive control freak given to treating his actors like cattle and indulging his tastes for cool blondes, but why is he now suddenly the subject of two crappy biopics that do nothing to enhance the legacy of the Master of Suspense?

Name your poison — one has him depicted as a slobbering toad obsessing over his icy discovery; the other shows him as an oversized infant tortured by thoughts of his wife's infidelity and taking advice from a notorious serial killer.

Neither one is any damn good — and it's not nice to pick on someone who's not alive to defend himself.

HBO's The Girl centers around Hitch's obsession with Tippi Hedren, a model he happened upon by chance. While he is casting The Birds, wife Alma points out a pretty model on television and suggests her for the part of "the girl." Thus begins his fevered, wet-mouthed obsession with the unattainable actress, who is grateful for the opportunities he's giving her at the same time she's recoiling from his advances. In turns pursuing and punishing her, he looses real birds on her during the climactic attack scene, keeps her on edge with disgustingly ribald limericks and locks her in a seven-year contract to keep her from working for other directors.

This film is loaded with problems, not the least of which are the locations. It wasn't made anywhere near Hollywood, and the "studio" they keep pulling up to looks hilariously like a prison (the filmmakers may argue that it was intentional). And the Birds exteriors reminded me more of the White Cliffs of Dover than Bodega Bay.

Toby Jones (who also played Truman Capote in Infamous, one of two Capote biographies of the mid-2000s) bears little physical resemblance to Hitch, but at least sounds like him. Imelda Staunton is really quite good as his no-nonsense pepperpot wife Alma, as is Penelope Wilton playing his devoted assistant, Peggy Robertson. But Sienna Miller doesn't look or sound anything like Hedren, and she spends much of the film looking dazed, except — of course — during the requisite "bird flashback" scene.

The biggest problem with this film is that it's just plain dull. I can only imagine its intended target audience is old fat guys in love with beautiful, untouchable young women. And a closing title has the temerity to suggest that his second film with Hedren, the dull Marnie, is now considered his final masterpiece.

Wrong! Take a look at 1972's Frenzy again. Not only was the Master firing on all cylinders with this wonderfully sick dark comedy, he really gave full reign to his misogynistic feelings. Just check out the truly awful rape and murder of Barbara Leigh-Hunt..."Lovely....Lovely!"

Hitch's memory was desecrated again this year with Hitchcock, an alleged behind-the-scenes biopic about the making of Psycho. At the outset, when we see Ed Gein bash his brother's head in with a shovel, after which have Anthony Hopkins as Hitch mugging it up in a fat suit to welcome us to his movie, our hopes rise, as we think we're going to be treated to another genius faux biography along the lines of Ed Wood.

Then, when we start meeting the cast of his proposed new horror film, our anticipation increases even more. Though Scarlett Johannson looks nothing like Janet Leigh, she does a terrific job capturing her essence and matter-of-fact way of speaking. James D'Arcy, on the other hand, looks and sounds just like Anthony Perkins. Then the trouble starts...

Hopkins himself can't seem to rise above his enlarged self, playing Hitch as if he behaved in everyday life like he was introducing one of his television episodes, and when GILF Helen Mirren arrives on the scene in the role of Alma, all bets are off. Mirren is far too earthy and sensuous to play his bookish spouse (see below), and the idea of sexual tension between the real-life Hitchcocks seems...unlikely.

According to John J. McLaughlin and Stephen Rebello's screenplay,  Alma was nurturing a screenwriter during the production of Psycho, and jealous Hitch was so worried that she was sleeping with the younger man that he was driven to distraction. To make matters worse, he'd risked his own money on the film and couldn't even get the screenplay cleared by the censors.

There's a bit of nice history here and there. We're shown some pre-production wrangling with the Production Code's Geoffrey Shurlock (Kurtwood Smith) denying Hitch's film a seal of approval and a couple of recreations of Psycho, including the shower scene, and we get bits and pieces of his ideas for its promotional campaign, but for the most part Hitchcock is more concerned with its rather pedestrian story of a marriage than it is with revealing any aspects of the Master's creative genius.

As I said, Hitchcock has been lovingly produced, with a good sense of location and some good performances, but it couldn't have chosen a more boring central story unless it depicted an afternoon in the life of the Hitchcocks as they look for one of Alma's missing earrings. Wait — that could be a MacGuffin.

One marvelous scene (that comes too late in the film to save it) occurs when Hitch is standing in the lobby of a theater during the Psycho premiere. Listening to Bernard Herrmann's now-legendary cue, he knows exactly when the shower curtain will be ripped open and when the audience inside will react. And when it does, he conducts the subsequent screams as if they were instruments in an orchestra. Alas, it only serves as a reminder of what could have been.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Manhattan-based horror

I spent a few days in New York this week working a conference but stayed an extra day to have some fun. Last night I wandered the Village and Chelsea for hours, heard some good blues and saw this guy with a cat on his head. I also rented a bike to ride Central Park as well as the Upper East Side. Inspired by the movie Premium Rush, I decided to take on Broadway, Columbus and some of the side streets. My Premium wasn't quite as rushy, but cars swerved in front of me, doors suddenly flew open and people made right turns in the least opportune moments. It would definitely take some getting used to, commuting this city by bike on a daily basis. But I'd be willing to give it a try.

Premium Rush was certainly the action film for us urban bicyclists but maybe not a whole lot of other people, which may have explained its demise at the boxoffice. Nevertheless, this being Weird Movie Village, carousing the streets of Manhattan day and night, on foot and wheel, put me in mind of some Manhattan-based horror films.

Of course, there's the previously-discussed Rosemary's Baby, which gave us a peek into what really goes on inside those massive old apartment buildings, but you have to go back 25 years earlier to the Val Lewton-produced chiller The Seventh Victim (1943) to find another satantic cult raising hell in Greenwich Village where Kim Hunter goes in search of her missing sister and discovers that she's secretly married to Beaver's Dad (Hugh Beaumont)! The horror!

Praised as one of Lewton's classic low-budget RKO thrillers along with 1942's Cat People, but the producer thumbed his nose at the Production Code by having a main character commit suicide and a lesbian theme running throughout the picture.

Another sinister residence (but on a much goofier level) was the apartment building in the absolutely ridiculous The Sentinel, most notable for its Gil Melle score that doesn't shut up, a plethora of over-the-hill actors in small roles, people with real deformities playing creatures from the underworld, and Beverly D'Angelo playing cymbals topless, which really makes you concerned for her bazooms (considering their size).

70s and 80s TV actress Cristina Raines plays a young woman who moves into a great Brookyn Heights apartment, thinking she's gotten a great deal, only to realize that her snazzy loft is situated just above the Gates of Hell with old John Carradine as the old blind priest serving as the gauardan of the gate but looking like someone dumped a bag of flour on him.

Melle was a jazz musician and artist who did some film and television work, most memorably the theme from Rod Serling's Night Gallery, but with The Sentinel he seems to be going for an experimental long-form kind of improvisation. It seems like every single frame of the film is scored, and it's pretty strange.

More vigilante drama than horror film, Abel Ferrara's Ms. .45 has enough strangeness to classify for the Village. Zoe Tamerlaine (neé Tamerlis) plays a deaf mute seamstress at a fashion house who is brutally raped — twice — and sets out for bloody revenge on the male of the species. Scenes of her hacking up one of her victims in her bathtub and disposing of the body parts in black trash bags linger in the mind, as does her murderous rampage dressed as a nun during a Halloween party. Very much in the vein of Polanski's Repulsion, it deals with the violent untethering of a withdrawn young woman's psyche.

Street Trash (1987) is a bizarre horror-comedy hybrid that gets the ball rolling when a liquor store owner finds a case of Viper in his cellar and sells it to local hobos for a dollar a bottle. When they consume it, however, they melt in various messy ways. But that's just part of it. True to its name, the film also features rape, necrophilia, abuse by cop, sexual organ dismemberment...the works. It's directed by Jim Muro, an in-demand Steadicam operator, so all those scenes of debauchery are filmed with style.

Cult director and cult film preservationist Frank Henenlotter is a Manhattan boy through and through, so his key films are all set in the Apple — Basket Case, Brain Damage and Frankenhooker. Basket Case is so incredibly low-budget, shot on 16mm, you just know those are real sleazy 42nd Street hotel rooms they're filming in. But it all adds to the charm. Speaking of 42nd Street, I was heartened the other night when I was walking back from Times Square to my hotel in Herald Square to see that there was still a peepshow hanging in there.

I remember seeing Frankenhooker at a midnight showing at the sadly missed Rialto Theater in South Pasadena. What perfect subject matter. The audience roared when the lovely Elizabeth was re-animated into a Times Square prostitute with a fatal touch, and they loved it when the super crack-smoking hookers exploded.

A discussion of Manhattan horror would not be complete without mention of William Lustig's n'est plus ultra of sleaze, Maniac, with the late Joe Spinell as a really greasy, really sleazy murderer, and Lucio Fulcio's sleazefest, The New York Ripper. They must've played plenty a double feature up and down the Deuce in the day.

Larry Cohen brought an ancient Aztec creature t the Chrysler Building with his film Q (1982), as the mythical Qetzecoatl, or flying lizard, snatches up victims from the streets and roofs of Manhattan. Michael Moriarty is the crazy guy (big stretch) who's found a huge egg on top of the aforementioned building but can't get the cops to believe him. They've got distractions of their own — some lunatic cult is running around town skinning people. For all its low budget, Q has some good gore and a nice sense of offbeat humor.

For more classy fare, poor Tony Scott's artsy The Hunger (1983) interestingly dealt with themes that vampire movies and television shows are all tackling nowadays: love, loneliness, the sheer boredom of eternity. When Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie bring home the young punks and start to sex 'em up, only to whip out their sacrificial knives and lay them open (as opposed to just laying them), the way they lap up the flowing streams of blood is far more sexual than what they'd been doing just moments before. And Susan Sarandon, who falls under Deneuve's spell even as she realizes she's falling into a trap from which there's no escape, gives a good performance as the surrogate audience member asking us to believe the impossible.

2007's John Cusack starrer 1408 is a fun ghost story about a "debunker" (Cusack) who goes to the Dolphin Hotel in New York and stays in the supposedly-haunted room 1408, only to be driven mad by the horrific visions he sees there. Kind of like a modern, hipper Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Cusack does a pretty good job in what's essentially a one-man show. Adapted from a Stephen King short story, the prolific author must've seen Antonio Margheriti's 1964 Castle of Blood beforehand.

There seem to be a preponderance of haunted-building films in the New York horror genre, and with good reason. There are lots of old buildings. The hotel I just did a conference at was one of the hotspots during the glory days of glamorous nightclubs and live bands in the '30s and '40s, but now it's full of gloomy corridors and darkly-lit ballrooms that you swear — if you stay really quiet — that you can hear the ghosts of decades ago whispering in the murkiness...and maybe the strains of a swing tune or two.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Silence! The Musical Attacks L.A.

Lovers of cult movies – and cult theater – can rejoice. Silence! The Musical has made the journey from New York to Los Angeles with all the laughs intact.

Bolstered by Jon and Al Kaplan's infinitely clever music and lyrics and a sharp-witted book by Hunter Bell, Silence transfers Jonathan Demme's 1991 horror masterpiece The Silence of the Lambs to the stage in a riotous adaptation punctuated by dead-on performances, gleefully raunchy humor, and elaborate song-and-dance numbers.

The plot of Demme's film has been telescoped into 90 fast-paced minutes with all its major incidents intact. In fact, two of its most notorious lines of dialogue have been developed into full-on production numbers, and fans will be delighted to see their favorite scenes reinterpreted with a comic twist.

As Clarice Starling, the neophyte FBI agent assigned to the Buffalo Bill murder case, Christine Lakin has an uncanny physical similarity to Jodie Foster and does a perfect imitation of the Academy Award-winner's vocal mannerisms for the character. Davis Gaines is an impressive visage as Hannibal Lecter, and Stephen Bienskie completes the trio of leads with his fearless portrayal of Buffalo Bill. The fact that these actors are all so convincing in their interpretations makes the comedy they're delivering even funnier.

In smaller but no less important roles, Jeff Skowron is an unctuous Dr. Childress; Kathy Dietch manages to play both the lotion-rubbing victim Catherine and her senator mother; Jeff Hiller is a riot in multiple roles (including "Multiple" Miggs); and Latoya London gets to belt out her own number as Clarice's sidekick and co-trainee, Ardelia. Additionally, they appear in an all-lamb chorus to help propel the story along.

Christopher Gattelli's direction and elaborate choreography take the Kaplans' songs to absurdly comic heights, aided immeasurably by Scott Pask's innovative sets and David Kaley's accurate yet spoofy costuming. Lighting by Jeff Croiter and and sound design by Carl Casella help to convey the gloominess of the original film, which serves as an ironic counterpoint to the brightness of the comedy in this production.

And, yes, for all you Lamb aficionados out there – the tuck scene is recreated.

Silence! The Musical plays Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. through October 7 at the Hayworth Theatre, 2511 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Reservations can be made online or by calling (866) 811-4111.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Maddin's Keyhole: Another Amazing Journey

Jason Patric and Isabella Rossellini
Winnipeg auteur Guy Maddin's 2011 Keyhole, which I just caught on DVD last night, is another jewel in the obsessive filmmaker's crown. Strange enough to satisfy Maddin diehards, it's also straightforward — er, sort of — enough to give neophytes gentle passage into his world.

Certainly it's the chattiest of Maddin's works, and has the most exposed flesh. I see it as a haunted house's passion play, performed by ghosts over and over every night for an audience of nobody. Some people may argue that point, but I'm sticking to it, damn it.

Keyhole is Maddin's first completely digital film, which means it's lacking some of that lovely silver nitrate glow his other features have, but it's still firmly planted in his favored German-expressionism-meets-the-sound-era netherworld. Shadows are everywhere, chandeliers swing of their own volition and lights shining through elaborate transoms constantly wander around every room. And what rooms — Maddin's obsession with objects continues here, as the camera roams lovingly over all manner of things — stuffed animals, radios, toasters and trinkets. There's even a stuffed wolverine with a scout knife clenched in its teeth.

Ostensibly, this is the story of Ulysses (Jason Patric), a gangster who returns after a long absence to his own haunted house to hide out from the cops. He ends up confronting the ghosts of his past —his wife, Hyacinth (Isabella Rossellini), who keeps her father (Louis Negin) chained to her bed; her lover, Chang; an assortment of children who are dead but still wandering around, including one son who is constantly masturbating and one living son, Manners (David Wontner), who is kept gagged and tied to a chair for most of the film — and whom Ulysses doesn't recognize as his own.

Ulysses orders his gang to begin redecorating — yes, redecorating. And he starts to make his way through the labyrinth with Denny (Brooke Paisson), a blind and half-drowned girl he'd brought with him to serve as his psychic guide. Ghosts wander about this forlorn place, occasionally emitting blood-curdling screams, and although Ulysses warns the gang that ghosts don't like to be touched, one of them ("Kids in the Hall" alumnus Kevin McDonald) can't resist trying to sexually assault the spirit of a scrubwoman and is electrocuted to death for his trouble. Happily, once he's dead and has become a ghost himself, he can go on to fulfill his sexual quest.

Ulysses' gang
Then there's Dr. Lemke (Udo Kier), a physician who has just left his just-deceased son at the hospital at Ulysses' behest so that he can examine Denny, whom he declares is "in bad shape — blind and full of water." Next thing you know, everyone gets into the bathtub. Denny joins Manners, who's already there, still bound and gagged, and Hyacinth manages to squeeze in too, despite her husband's contention that it's pretty crowded in there. And did I mention that her father, who serves as the narrator of the piece, walks around naked throughout the entire film?

Maddin based Keyhole on Homer's "The Odyssey," which he says he'd just recently discovered, but this is most assuredly semi-autobiographical. Like the magnificent Brand Upon the Brain! (which I had the good fortune to see at the American Cinematheque in Hollywood with live musical accompaniment, live sound effects and live narration from the awesome Barbara Steele), this is a story about an uber-dysfunctional family. Between the chained-up dad, dead offspring and sons Ulysses doesn't even recognize anymore, this clan could cause Freud's head to explode.

However, Maddin is always a madman with a purpose, and Keyhole unfolds with a twisted urgency and lots of jet-black humor. For example, when Ulysses and Denny are making their way through a dark hallway, there's an erect penis sticking through — you got it, a keyhole. Denny says "Unicorn coming up," and Ulysses merely comments, "That penis is getting dusty." Strangely, I was reminded of the hallway of living limbs in Jean Cocteau's masterpiece La Belle et La Béte. Was that Maddin's intention? And Keyhole also reminded me of 1975's Thundercrack!, another black and white old-dark-house black comedy (except with actual hardcore pornographic scenes).

Ulysses' living son Manners (David Wontner)
This is the most Hollywood-ish cast that Maddin's ever had, and it's a good thing. Of course, Rossellini became a Maddin regular with his 2003 The Saddest Music in the World, and it's a match made in Weird Movie Heaven. Instead of staying with David Lynch (whose work some people may unfairly compare to Maddin's), she ditched the "ooh, look how weird I can be" bore to hitch her star to a real talent — and it's paying off in spades artistically.

Rossellini is an incredibly warm actress with a face that the camera adores, and even when she's playing a really strange character (paging Dorothy Vallens), the humanity comes through. Her Hyacinth is also a nurturing figure, despite the fact that she's sleeping with the help, she wants to kill her husband and she keeps her nude father in chains. Ah, but who doesn't have their character flaws?

The always-welcome Kier has what amounts to just a cameo, but his story about his son's death is suitably upsetting. Patric, the original Lost Boy himself, is an absolute revelation here. Blessed with those angular good looks, he channels a 1930s-style gangster character superbly and brings it into Maddin's bizarre ouevre without a misstep.

Guy Maddin
In an interview with the AV Club, Maddin says that Patric might still consider him "a crazy fucker," but he really got it during production. Being the son of the late Jason Miller, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and star of The Exorcist, he knew something about familial discord and was able to bring that insight to his performance as Ulysses.

Patric really nails it, and his delivery of Maddin's darkly comic dialogue is perfect. A highlight arrives after his gang straps him into his son's homemade electric chair (which is bicycle powered) and tries to execute him. He merely laughs, stands up, regards his horrified would-be killers and says, "I feel charged!"

And later he confesses, "I'm only a ghost. But a ghost isn't nothing."

Keyhole is full of Maddin's trademark visual delights — hundreds (thousands?) of cuts, brief flashes of color, the ever-prowling camera. And Jason Staczek, who also wrote the music for Brain!, has composed an appropriate score that contributes to the film's unease with its almost continuous, low-fidelity hum.

I love Maddin's world. I'm sure it has a great deal to do with the fact that I'm a collector of films in the super 8mm format, with their variable contrast and sound quality — that makes his multi-guage filmmaking very reassuring to me. But his is also a bleakly beautiful milieu, full of mystery, that at first seems impenetrable but gradually opens itself up to the willing viewer —petal by petal, like a deadly nightshade in bloom.

Maddin says in the AV Club interview: "I know a lot of people who follow me probably figured I’d be the last person in the world to switch to digital, and that I also sort of ride a penny-farthing with a bowler hat, but I don’t. I want to be a normal guy. I’m just an artist trying to make stuff that matters to me." Hear, hear.

By the way, the wolverine's name is Crispy.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Billy Jack on the Big Screen

The wonderful New Beverly Cinema here in Hollywood has been having in an IB Technicolor festival and the Sunday before last they offered the irresistible double feature of Billy Jack (1971) and Death Wish (1974), so Weird Movie Village took it on the road for an afternoon of viewing nostalgia.

I first saw Billy Jack at the Rialto Theater in Walkerton, Indiana, during its second theatrical release when it was picked up by Warner Bros. Husband-and-wife team Tom Laughlin and Delores Taylor financed it (under the auspices of the National Student Film Company), also serving key creative roles and even trying to distribute it themselves before Warner parlayed it into a rather big hit in 1973. With its message of tolerance and emphasis on minority rights, it was a natural for wannabe hippie kids like me at the bitter end of the Woodstock generation. When you add the folky hit theme song, Coven's "One Tin Soldier," you've got the makings of a cult classic.

Alas, that hasn't really come to pass. Billy Jack's muddled messages and uneven pacing — not to mention tons of filler — just haven't aged well.

Even I am guilty of not preserving the film's memory, even though it played such a big part in my early teen years. I barely remembering watching it on CBS Late Movie airings or on early home video, even though I'm sure I did. Yet watching it flicker back to life on the Beverly's screen, I found myself feeling like I was being reunited with an old friend that I'd long ago betrayed. Well, until the heretofore-described problems set in.

As advertised, the color of the print was good, but it had been run through hundreds of projectors over the years and was pretty scratched, but that's why we love watching 35mm at the Beverly. Plenty o' scratches, missing frames and hissing, popping soundtracks take us back to the true essence of movie watching that today's digitally-projected, Dolby-filtered googolplexes have taken away from us.

A synopsis of the film sounds promising. Laughlin's hero is a half-Caucasian, half-Cherokee former Green Beret turned anti-war activist who lives in the hills high above a conservative Arizona town and serves as the guardian of the nearby Freedom School, a place for misfit and outcast kids, run by Jean Roberts (Taylor), whom he also loves. So far, so good.

But every time the kids from the school go into town to shop and do improv, they raise the ire of the resident rednecks, including Bernard Posner (David Roya), the spoiled son of the corrupt town boss (Bert Freed) who's so evil he rounds up wild horses to shoot them and sell their meat for dog food. After a soda jerk refuses to serve some of the students because of their race, Bernard intermediates by dumping flour on them and pronouncing, "Now they're all white." Billy Jack comes in, sees what's happened to the innocent kids, and his slow-to-burn fuse is lit. Soon, he's whomping on a bunch of Bernard's thugs in the park until they get the best of him and the deputy sheriff (Ken Tobey) has to break it up. But the battle has begun, and it's just not going to end well.

But here's the problem. A great deal of the film's 116-minute running time is taken up with the activities of the school, which includes textiles, singing bad folk songs and improv. WKRP in Cincinnati's Howard Hesseman plays the drama teacher who leads the exercises, which all seem to focus around getting stoned and rebelling against "the man."

There's a new arrival at the school, Barbara (Julie Webb), through whose eyes we witness the previously described activities and the enigma that is Billy Jack. Barbara is the deputy sheriff's daughter who'd been dragged back to town from Haight-Ashbury by her father's henchmen. Announcing that she's pregnant, has contracted hepatitis and had sex with so many men she doesn't know if the baby is going to be "white, Mexican or black," she drives Dad over the edge and he beats her severely. At the hospital where she's being treated for her injuries, the town's closet liberal doctor (Victor Izay) realizes that she's going to need to be sent to the Freedom School, far away from Daddio's fists of fury.

Again, this sounds like it should be high-tension drama, but there's an obnoxiously, allegedly adorable kid, Carol (Teresa Kelly), who sings about forty treacly songs, including one about her brother who'd just been killed in Vietnam, putting the brakes on the plot. And more encounters between the students and the locals result in a massive outbreak of role-playing for everyone.

Finally, there's some more action. Bernard kills Martin (Stan Rice), a student with a severe underbite that Barbara has developed a crush on, and then he rapes Jean (a disturbing scene for a multitude of reasons). Billy Jack shows up in the hotel room where Bernard is having sex with an underage girl and kills him, then holes up in an adobe fortress and refuses to surrender until the cops promise to leave the Freedom School untouched for at least ten years. The agreement is reached, and he's led off in handcuffs as seemingly everyone in town stands by the side of the road raising their fists in unity and "One Tin Soldier" chirps away on the soundtrack.

There's still some fun to be had with the film. The students all seem to be just one acid hit away from becoming the Manson Family (even sweet little Carol), and you can practically smell the body odor and patchouli wafting off of them. When Billy Jack goes "ber-SERK!", as he says, he uses slow-motion karate to get the best of his enemies. But the scenes between Jean and Billy when she tries to persuade him to stop his violent ways as they declare their love for each other are hilariously mawkish.

The film is quite modestly produced. Like the similarly-budgeted Legend of Boggy Creek (1972),  it does the best it can with limited resources. Laughlin and Taylor's script rambles and Laughlin's direction (under a pseudonym) wanders. I think the central performances have held up pretty well, even though Taylor is still pretty wooden and always looks like she's been on a three-day drinking-and-crying jag.

The incidental music sounds like it's left over from that Brady Bunch two-parter when they go to Hawaii and run into Vincent Price. And how times have changed. This mostly innocent-minded PG-rated film has a rape, drug references, descriptions of unsavory acts, several exposed breasts and two fleeting glimpses of female frontal nudity (including that of an alleged 13-year-old). Maybe that's why it was such a hit with the under-18 crowd in 1973.

Billy Jack has been released in a special edition on Blu-Ray, but I don't know why anyone would want to see it that way. I'm sure watching the disc wouldn't engender the same sense of nostalgia I experienced when it unspooled at the Beverly. That's the way it should be seen — in a revival house with a much-abused print and two-dollar popcorn.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Valley of the Dolls: The Best Bad Movie

Whenever aficionados of le cinema du stinque get together to talk about really bad movies, titles like Plan 9 from Outer Space and Battleship Earth get bandied about. But for my money, the magnum opus of screamingly, hilariously awful filmmaking has got to be the 1967 Twentieth Century-Fox production of Valley of the Dolls.

Fox had bought the rights to Jacqueline Susann's tawdry novel for a mere $65,000 and put it into production with a not-insignificant $5 million budget. It seemed to be perfect timing — Hollywood was growing up with films like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Bonnie and Clyde, but this film was determinedly old-fashioned in its approach despite delving into such taboo subjects as drug addiction, homosexuality and criminally horrible acting. And that's why we love it.

Anyhow, Mark Robson, who cut his teeth on Val Lewton low-budget horror movies in the 1940s, was an odd but (as it turns out) inspired choice as director. Andre Previn and then-wife Dory supplied the unforgettably awful musical numbers for the film. Dory had had a mental breakdown a couple of years before and was institutionalized briefly, which may explain why her lyrics make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

And the cast — Academy Award-winner Patty Duke, who started strong with The Miracle Worker and then veered off into twinsville with The Patty Duke Show, somehow got talked into playing Neely O'Hara as a wise career move. Keeping in mind she was barely out of her teens when production started, her performance is precocious but quite over-the-top, and she was mortified the first time she saw the finished product. Only recently has begun to embrace her contribution to this splendid fiasco.

Barbara Parkins was a TV star doing Emmy-nominated work in Peyton Place (whose film adaptation Robson had directed. Coincidence? I think not) when she was cast as Anne Welles. Sharon Tate came onboard as the simple but level-headed showgirl Jennifer North, who realized her sell-by date was coming quick. And the last important female role was filled by the scenery-chewing Susan Hayward, who became a role model for drag queens everywhere with her performance as Helen Lawson, the bigger-than-life Broadway star whose enormous celebrity is baffling, to say the least, since she has a penchant for mercilessly slaughtering underlings and singing banal tunes with somebody else's voice.

Judy Garland had originally been cast as Lawson, but it's said she was fired when she came to work plastered. Photos and screen tests reveal that she looked pretty bad for 45, and it's doubtful that this role would have done anything for a life that was heading down the tubes.

But back to the fun. Accompanied by '60s stop-motion animation, which looks like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on acid, Anne's voice cautions us that "you have to climb Mount Everest to reach the valley of the dolls." Then we meet the virginal little minx herself in the quaint little New England town of Lawrenceville, who ditches her drip of a boyfriend and "announces that she intends to live in New York," much to the horror of her spinster aunt and spinster mother. I know, you can't have a spinster mother, but everyone seems to be that way.

Next thing you know, Anne is checking in at a Manhattan hotel for women and applying for a secretarial job at a talent agency, Bellamy and Bellows, whose youngest agent, Lyon Burke (Paul Burke) sends female hearts aflutter. Her first assignment is to go to the theater where Helen is rehearsing her new show, "Hit the Sky," to get her to sign some contracts.

Hearing Neely singing "Give a Little More" in a nearby rehearsal hall, Anne comments in her pretentious English accent, "She's quite good, isn't she?", to which diesel dyke Helen tilts her head, nibbles on her glasses, nods and says (more or less), "Yeah! She is. And she's out. I want you to tell Bellamy to tie a can to that little broad's tail!" because "The only star of a Helen Lawson show is Helen Lawson, and that's me, baby!" Hayward really should have won a special Oscar for Best Performance as a Drag Queen by an Actual Woman.

And what the hell is her show about? It's got "Give a Little More," showgirls in enormous headdresses, and Helen standing on a stage orbited by huge translucent mobiles while singing "I'll Plant My Own Tree" and bending over sideways in a really bizarre and painful-looking position. And her vocal double, Margaret Whiting, had a light, pleasant voice which sounded nothing like Hayward, whose guttural growl made Bea Arthur seem delicate.

After Anne sees how awful Helen is and how talented Neely is and how unassuming Jennifer is, they all become BFF and Anne is unable to resist the advances of a new client, a makeup manufacturer, who thinks she'd be their perfect "Gillian Girl." Cue one of the film's hilarious still-frame montages during which she gets into increasingly hilarious outfits (courtesy of Travilla — one of those single-monikered designers) and extreme makeup.

After she's fired from "Hit the Sky," Lyon books Neely on a TV charity marathon where she performs "It's Impossible" and becomes a star. This scene makes me crazy. First of all, it's got Joey Bishop. Secondly, the lyrics are completely nonsensical:

It's impossible
It's not my style
If I tried it I'd miss by a mile...

She never gets around to saying what's impossible. Or what it is she's trying to do. And it's not a good idea to wear a long necklace when you're making moves like Joe Cocker having a seizure. The damn thing keeps looping around one breast at a time until the exciting finale when she manages to encircle them both. It's a riot.

Not to be outdone by Anne, Neely also gets a montage sequence that chronicles her increasing dependence on pills. Soon she becomes as big a hardass as Helen and starts snarling all of her dialogue. I love it when Anne admonishes her (she does a lot of admonishing) not to drink with the pills, and she retorts, "They work faster." Lots of people snarl their dialogue in this movie, except Parkins, who talks like a phone sex operator with a pretentious English accent.

Meanwhile, Jennifer falls for nightclub entertainer Tony Polar (the reptilian Tony Scotti) whose sister, Miriam, is played by Lee Grant, who manages to overact without even moving or talking. Tony's act consists of one song, "Come Live with Me," which he sings in an amusingly girlish voice, sending Jennifer swooning. But Miriam is harboring a secret — Tony has Huntington's disease and will become a vegetable in a few years, so she keeps him on a short leash and a strict budget so he can go to a "nice place" when the time comes.

Neely ditches her nice-guy boyfriend, Mel (the incredibly bland Martin Milner) and takes up with designer Ted Casablanca (Alex Davion), who everyone thinks is gay. When Jennifer says, "You know how bitchy fags can be," Neely explodes. "Ted Casablanca is not a fag! And I'm the dame who can prove it." But then she catches him enjoying a midnight swim with another woman, and he accuses her of emasculating him ("You made me feel that I really was queer." Ouch.) He insists that the woman he'd just been frolicking with made him "feel nine feet tall." Her perplexing response? "I could take that better." What the hell does that mean?

She rushes off to San Francisco and gets completely wasted, waking up in a hotel room with a strange man who is busy robbing her, Finally, she gets sent to a sanitarium where rough lesbian nurses give her a bizarre form of hydrotherapy. During a patient Happy Hour, she sings "Come Live with Me" and is surprised to hear a familiar voice joining in. Yep, it's old broccoli Tony Polar, remembering his only song.

She sobers up, becomes tougher than ever, and sets her cap for Lyon. This causes Anne to fall apart. Next thing you know, she's got her own prescription of "dolls" and is staggering down the beach in a drug-induced haze.

Oh, and Jennifer, who's been reduced to making soft-core porn to keep Tony hospitalized ("Boobies, boobies, boobies," says Neely), is diagnosed with breast cancer and decides to snuff it rather than undergo a double mastectomy. This is actually the most touching scene in the film (probably because it's Sharon Tate, whose real fate was far more ghastly). Taking an overdose of pills, she lays down and waits for the end, accompanied by the sound of Tony's girly voice singing — what else? "Come Live with Me." Author Susann herself shows up as a reporter in the scene afterwards when they're hauling Jennifer's body to the hearse.

Then there's the moment we've all been waiting for — the reunion of Neely and Helen in the ladies' room at an event for Helen that Neely crashes to be the center of attention. This scene has the greatest dialogue:

Helen: They drummed ya right out of Hollywood, so ya come crawlin' back to Broadway. Well, Broadway doesn't go for booze and dope.

Yes, she pronounces Broadway with an emphasis on the second syllable. Anyhow, she snarls, "Outta my way. I gotta man waiting for me," to which Neely retorts, "That's a switch from the fags you're usually stuck with." Helen's response: "At least I never had to marry one." Neely snatches the wig from her head and tries to flush it down the toilet.

The good times don't last, though. Neely has a relapse and on opening night, she comes staggering out of her dressing room in a green bee costume which is meant for the second act. "So?" she reasons. "We'll do the second act first!" Her understudy, grinning evilly and really looking like a drag queen, slithers by to take the stage. She's wearing a sailor outfit, so obviously she's ready for the first act. Neely ends up in a dark alley, drunk and disorderly, calling out the names of all those she's wronged. I guess she can't call out the names of everyone in the audience, because that'd take too long.

Epilogue: Anne goes back to Lawrenceville to live in the Welles homestead and presumably take up the family business of spinsterhood.

Now, I know this film is supposed to span a couple of decades, but there's nothing to indicate the passage of time. Nobody ages, the clothes remain the same, and the lousy songs are, for lack of a better word, immortal. But that's part of the fun. Neely, Anne and Jennifer are stuck in an endless loop of incomprehensibility for generations to enjoy for centuries to come.

Three years later, Fox bankrolled a sequel-in-name-only, Russ Meyer's X-rated Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, which was scripted by Roger Ebert. In this one, the Carrie Nations, a girl group, goes to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune and get caught up in the drug and sex lifestyle. Intentionally camp, it's got Meyers' trademark rapid-fire editing and boobies, boobies, boobies. And John LaZar saying, "This is my happening and it freaks me out!" I love it.

Valley of the Dolls was remade for TV in 1981 in a bloated, two-part adaptation starring Lisa Hartman as Neely and Catherine Hicks as Anne. Instead of camping it up, the filmmakers went ridiculously straight. Why in God's name would you even bother? At least they had fun with the 1998 TV movie Scandalous Me: The Story of Jacqueline Susann, in which Parkins plays an agent who walks onto the set of the original film and demands, "Where's Barbara Parkins?"

Bette Midler played Susann in 2000's Isn't She Great, with Nathan Lane as husband Irving Mansfield and a screenplay by Paul Rudnick. It manages to be the gayest film ever made, and yet it's really no fun. There's a scene during which, when watching Valley of the Dolls for the first time — Jacqueline turns to Irving and says, "I hate this movie." It could just have easily been Midler commenting on her movie, such a bizarre misfire it is.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Film Reviews: Metal Hair and Popping Pecs

On Saturday, I went to a screening of Rock of Ages ready for lots of laughs at the film's expense. To my surprise, I quickly realized that the filmmakers were already in on the joke, and I found myself laughing with it as opposed to at it. As the tagline (and the song) says, it ain't nothin' but a good time. God knows it was eons better than that train-wreck adaptation of Mamma Mia with the chameleon-eyed Amanda Seyfried and Meryl "I Have Three Oscars So Fuck You" Streep.

The plot is really, really simple: small town girl Sherrie (Julianne Hough) goes to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune but falls for a barback, Drew (Diego Boneta), working at the legendary Bourbon Room on the Sunset Strip. Drew gets Sherrie a job as a waitress and they fall in love, and  he gets the opportunity to make his performing debut at the club when the opening act for the lite metal band Arsenal, led by the legendary Stacee Jaxx (Tom Cruise) is a no-show. But he thinks Sherrie has slept with Jaxx in his dressing room and the trouble begins. First, they quit their jobs and break up. Then she becomes a stripper at a nearby men's club and he signs with Paul Gill, a sleazy promoter (Paul Giamatti) who persuades him to forsake his rock and roll roots and become the frontman for one of those horrible '80s boy bands.

Meanwhile, Patricia (Catherine Zeta-Jones), wife of mayor-to-be Mike Whitmore (Bryan Cranston), is launching a campaign to clean up down the evil rock clubs on the Strip, especially the Bourbon, where Jaxx is scheduled to play. Of course, it turns out that her righteous indignation stems from him leaving her in the lurch after a long-ago one night stand. And Mike is having an affair with his secretary, which leads to a number in which Patricia performs Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot" accompanied by other GCBs in a church while he's bent over a desk in the rectory getting spanked by the secretary. Is there a clause in Cranston's contract specifying that every project he works on must include a scene of him in tighty whities? And should I put the phrase "bent over a desk" together with the word "rectory"? Doesn't sound right somehow.

There's more — the Bourbon Club's dissolute owner, Dennis Dupree (Alec Baldwin) finally admits his love for his assistant, Lonny (Russell Brand), and the two sing Speedwagon's "I Can't Fight This Feeling Anymore" to each other. Brand usually makes me want to heave, but here the scenes of him making eyes and coquettishly tossing his hair at Baldwin are pretty funny.

Cruise's Jaxx has a sex scene/duet of Foreigner's "I Wanna Know What Love Is" with a Rolling Stone interviewer, the ridiculously-named Constance Sack (Malin Akerman). It's also pretty funny — they engage in some athletic foreplay on an air hockey table, and at one point he's singing to her butt.

Jaxx is one of Cruise's stranger characters, burnt out by fame and years of self-abuse. We first meet him passed out under a pile of groupies, shirtless and tattooed and sporting a Satan head codpiece. When you take into consideration that authentic strangeness of the real Cruise, it's rather a distressing sight. It's like seeing Joan Crawford playing herself in Mommie Dearest instead of Faye Dunaway — one weird mask on top of another. And since I consider Cruise to be the Joan Crawford of the new millennium, the analogy fits.

The make-believe Hollywood depicted in the film is hilarious. The exteriors look like they're pulled straight from an Ed Wood epic, and the Bourbon Room is a lush theatrical space with a giant stage that allows for pyrotechnics, something the modestly-sized clubs on the Strip would never be able to accommodate or be cleared for by the fire department.

The film's designers did a fair job recreating the famed Tower Records store at the corner of Sunset and Horn, but the bulk of the inventory seems to be used records selling for $9.44 apiece. First off, Tower never sold used records (except maybe in an outlet location) and $9.44 was about what a new record cost in 1987. And I certainly don't recall any Tipper Gore-like Christian women carrying protest signs in front of the Whisky at that time. But maybe I'm nitpicking.

Critics really savaged Rock of Ages. It's certainly not a masterpiece; it's just not that bad, and everyone involved seems to be yocking it up (except for Mary J. Blige, who has a nice presence but seems to think she's in a se-e-e-e-rious movie). It was okay and I enjoyed it while I was on, but I probably don't need to see it again. Unless I have to choose between it and a Duplass Brothers movie. Then take me back to the Bourbon Room...posthaste.

Another sort of musical, Steven Soderbergh's Magic Mike, got much kinder notices than the previous film, but in many ways it's just as goofy. It's saddled with a really contrived script, but it's bolstered by good performances from Channing Tatum (whose real-life experiences the film is supposedly based on), Matthew McConaughey and Cody Horn (daughter of new Disney chief Alan Horn). Tatum puts his looks and likeable personality to good use as the eponymous Mike, McConaughey has a field day as strip club owner Dallas, and Horn, playing the big sister of Mike's stripper-in-training, Adam (Alex Pettyfer), has offbeat looks and an offbeat acting style, which makes for a refreshing change from the usual vapid starlets (see Amanda Seyfried).

One day, Mike is working on the same construction crew as Adam, but when the younger man is fired, he takes him under his wing and to Xquisite, the club that he and a bunch of his buff friends strip at. There's quite literally a 42nd Street-style "you're going out there a youngster but you've got to come back a star!" moment when Adam, who is nicknamed the Kid, is pushed onstage to reveal his tender flesh for the first time to a howling pack of cougars clutching singles.

Celebrating the Kid's success until the wee hours, they get back to the apartment he shares with his sister, Brooke (Horn), who regards Mike with a kind of bemused suspicion. Even when she goes to the club to see what's going on for herself, she takes Mike at his word when he reassures her that he'll keep an eye on Adam — and keep him out of trouble. Famous last words.

Of course, Adam is a shallow little asshole who does bad things...not because he's intentionally bad, but because he's a shallow little asshole out for a good time. Exhilarated by the lifestyle Mike has brought him into, he says, "I think we should be best friends." But soon he's breaking away from his teacher and doing what he wants to do anyhow, and it ends up costing Mike dearly.

Soderbergh, who serves as his own cinematographer and editor (as he frequently does) creates some interesting visuals and makes some artistic choices that are refined without being obtrusive. Some scenes are shot with unusual angles, and the Miami exteriors are heavily filtered in stifling yellows and greens that make the humidity practically ripple off the screen. All the strip numbers are staged, costumed and choreographed to a hilarious degree of perfection, as if Busby Berkeley had been resurrected and put to work. But no, there are no overhead shots of the guys scissoring their legs in unison, although that would've been a hoot.

It's interesting how the dynamics between the sexes are depicted in the film. The two main female characters are rather strong and independent. Olivia Munn plays Joanna, Mike's easygoing fuck buddy, who wants nothing more from him than sex. Brooke is a completely different story. Fiercely protective of her baby brother, she seems like just a baby herself and displays signs of — gasp! — still being a virgin. All the other women, the clubgoers, serve merely as conduits for the theater audience, grabbing at the dancers' rippled abs and firm buttocks because the moviegoers can't.

Tatum brings a bit of depth to Mike, the not terribly bright huckster who experiences a crisis of conscience. And McConaughey's Dallas is a character Freud could have a field day with. You're never really sure of his sexuality — he does seem to be having too much fun gently caressing Adam's shirtless torso while showing him some dance moves. And he's definitely misogynist, fond of reminding his team, "Who's got the cock? You do. They don't."

Other roles, filled by sort-of-famous Joe (True Blood) Manganiello and Matt (White Collar) Bomer are virtual cameos. Bomer has maybe one or two lines, and a story arc about him enjoying watching other men have sex with his wife is nipped in the bud before it can even begin. Otherwise, all the strippers are depicted as being hyper-heterosexual, even while they're shaving their legs and shopping for G-strings.

Despite the sordid premise, there's not much more flesh exposed than you can see on an average day at the beach in Brazil...maybe less. And nobody — male or female — should ever flap their butt cheeks. It's just not attractive. I refer to Divine in Female Trouble for a most egregious example, but it happens in Magic Mike, too.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Susan Tyrrell: Farewell, Wild Woman

I couldn't believe it when it popped up on my Facebook status. I thought it surely must be one of Susu's gags, but when it turned out to be true, I was stunned. She was actually gone. Last Sunday the 17th, to be exact.

Susan Tyrrell, the defiantly individualistic actor, artist and bent bon vivant never hesitated to speak her mind. In an interview with Psychotronic magazine in 1990, she opened up about her career and her life as a Hollywood fringe-dweller. I quote heavily from that original article for my reminiscence.

Her usual response when one of her films was brought up in the interview was "I hated it!", but she'd always follow up with an insightful anecdote. John Huston, who directed her to an Academy Award-nominated performance in Fat City (1972) screwed her over badly, physically and mentally, and she insisted that he really was Noah Cross, the creepy, manipulative character he played in Chinatown who got his own daughter pregnant.

When she made the disastrous Flesh + Blood in 1985, she quickly developed a profound hatred for director Paul Verhoeven and especially co-star Rutger Hauer. One day, she said, "He told me, 'I just want to suck on Marlon Brando's nipple' so he could learn how to act. I said, 'You'd better start with his dick 'cause you've got a lot to learn.'" That's prime Tyrrell — and what a great rejoinder to such a ridiculously pretentious comment.

She hated Andy Warhol's Bad, too, yet she hilariously switches tones in midstream when discussing it. Her quote: "I hated it. I don't like making anything. It's no fun, none of this is fun until you see it and it's a hit. But if it comes out a piece of drek then I'm just pissed off. Bad was just so ugly it wouldn't wash off at night. Everybody was so bad and beautiful, and I was so good and ugly. I love to watch it, I think it's very brilliant, very funny."

That's our Susu. But I love to watch it, too, and it's true — she really is good and awful-looking here, always lugging around an astoundingly ugly baby until, at one key moment, she is startled into dropping it on the floor.

She enjoyed playing Doris, Queen of the Sixth Dimension, in Richard Elfman's Fleischer cartoon-come-to-life, Forbidden Zone (1980), and she seems to have been charmed by her co-star, the pint-sized Hervé Villechaize as well. She admitted to having a long-term affair with him in a 2010 interview.

1982's Night Warning (aka Butcher, Baker, Nightmare Maker), directed by Bewitched creator WIlliam Asher, got another schizophrenic review from Tyrrell. "It was a piece of crap! I mean I liked it because it gave me a chance to go berserk. I always like that, but I don't need a piece of shit movie to make me go berserk."

I can believe that. Anyhow, she plays Cheryl, a lonely and rather desperate woman who engineers the fatal car accident of her sister and brother-in-law so she can adopt their infant son and raise him as her own. Years pass, and the boy has grown into a teenager (Jimmy McNichol) with interests of his own, and she becomes insanely jealous of his interest in girls and desire to get out from under her smothering embrace. Of course, she goes completely off the deep end and we get trademark insane, murderous Susu. 

Big Top Pee Wee was the awful sequel to Tim Burton's breakthrough hit Pee Wee's Big Adventure. Tyrrell played the 6" tall bride of Kris Kristofferson. And what did she think of it? "It was horrible. Everybody on the crew said I was such a bitch to work with, and I was. I was so ashamed to be in the fucking thing." No objections here – it really is a terrible movie.

Her career started in the early '60s when she moved to New York and got a part in As The World Turns (!). She lived for two years with Warhol superstar Candy Darling, who she claimed as her best friend. Of Candy, she said, "She was so velvet, so helpless, and so funny and beautiful. She was in Vogue, she was ravishing, yet so tacky. She had no teeth in front, two were rotted out; she looked like Ollie from Kukla, Fran and Ollie with this fang that came down."

Except for the dental issues and helplessness, the same could almost be said about Susu. She could make herself look unbelievably glamorous or unconscionably hideous. And it wasn't just make-up. Somehow she could manifest these changes in appearance from within.

I had the privilege of meeting her in 1991 when she did her one-woman show, My Rotten Life, at a nightclub in Los Angeles. She played a dead actress who, with her equally dead poodle by her side, reminisces about her time on earth. It was hilariously profane, and she proved that she had a great singing voice, too. She was sitting out in the lobby greeting the audience after the show, and she looked stunningly beautiful. When I asked her to sign my program, she said, "I'd be honored." Now that's class.

And I still have the t-shirt. It's embellished with her face on the front with the title of the show, and on the back is a picture of the poodle with one of her character's outrageous lines: "God, I miss my pussy."

Losing her legs in 2000 to essential thrombocythemia, she updated her fans about her condition through her web site and even posted video of herself working with her new artificial limbs. She also still did some film work, and she kept up with her painting, which is as bizarre and out-of-control as the woman herself. You can see samples on her site.

One of her final Facebook posts, in May of 2011, was this:

Will somebody do a re-make of fucking "Freaks" before I fucking croak!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Love, and Fuck you all!--from the bottom of my heart!! Your Chicken Hag! 

We're gonna miss you, Susu...and about the news of your death?

"I fucking hated it!"

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Retro Review: City of the Living Dead

Ah, Lucio Fulci. He's the gift that keeps on giving (even though he's dead). I know there are tons of Fulci aficionados who consider his "gates of hell" trilogy — City of the Living Dead, The Beyond and House by the Cemetery — to be masterpieces in his peculiar genre of film where mood overrides plot, but I enjoy them for the simple reason that they're pretty durn funny.

I was first treated to City of the Living Dead in its U.S. incarnation as Gates of Hell in the early 1980s, back when such films would actually get a theatrical release in the States. I saw it again theatrically at one of Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse shows at the New Beverly Cinema in 2007. That time, I was with a mob of like-minded, twisted movie fans who roared appreciatively throughout.

Just last week I revisited it on DVD and experienced all over again the magic, the majesty and the mystery that is...City of the Living Dead.

It starts in a mellow Lovecraftian mood as a priest in the small New England town of Dunwich hangs himself in a fog-shrouded cemetery. His suicide is actually a sacrifice that unlocks one of the seven gates of Hell which will allow the dead to rise up and roam the earth. Meanwhile, at a seance in Manhattan, a medium, Mary Woodhouse (Katriona MacColl) has a vision of the priest's act and it seems to scare her literally to death.

The cops arrive on the scene and accuse the seance-goers of being on drugs. "What is it?" demands the hilariously gruff lieutenant. "Pot? Smack? Did you flush it down the taw-let?" Theresa, of the seance, accuses him of being a ridiculous cartoon of a police officer or something similar. She's played by Adelaide Aste, a strange-looking actress who delivers her lines with an an intense edge that even bad dubbing can't dull. And Fulci zooms in tight on her bizarre little  eyes as she stares straight into the camera. It's too much.

Anyhow, the investigation is interrupted by a ball of fire emerging mysteriously from the floor, going up through the ceiling and, thanks to film reversal, going back down again, accompanied by what sounds like a lion's roar. The detective's uniformed officers are terrified, but he snarls, "Who lives in the apartment downstairs?", to which Theresa responds, "It's been vacant for over 20 years."

Wait a minute. An apartment in Manhattan...vacant? For 20 years? That requires too much of a suspension of belief.

Enter Peter Bell (Christopher George), a reporter who's gotten wind of Mary's mysterious death and has zoomed in for the scoop. Speaking of getting wind, if this film was in Smell-O-Vision, every time George appeared onscreen you'd get the unmistakable aroma of cigarettes, Vitalis and Jim Beam. Seriously, though, George seems to be having a good time with this role and makes a likeable presence.

He goes to the cemetery where Mary has already been planted in the ground but is still uncovered because the lazy gravediggers have already punched out for the afternoon. Leaning against a gravestone, Bell makes some notes (about what? the weather?) and starts to walk away, but he thinks he hears sounds coming from Mary's plot.

Indeed he is. Thankfully, she wasn't embalmed prior to burial, so she snaps back to life, screaming and trying to claw her way out of the coffin. Peter grabs a pickaxe and starts plunging it through the lid, barely missing the screaming woman's eyes and head. He manages to rescue her (as opposed to decapitating her) and takes her back to Theresa, who'd been studying up on Mary's vision in her handy copy of the ancient book of Enoch and can now say with certainty that the hanging of the priest is the beginning of a prophecy and — unless the gate is closed by All Saints Day — "no dead body will be able to rest in peace again." In short, all sales final.

Peter and Mary jump in the car and head for Dunwich, which is supposed to be in New England but at various times looks like the South, Brooklyn and even the island of Matul, where Fulci's blockbuster splatterfest Zombie took place.  Since most of it was shot in Georgia, that would explain the wandering locales. But nothing can explain the loud jungle noises that are heard on the soundtrack whenever anybody is walking around the dark, wind-blown streets at night.

There, the much-killed Giovanni Lombardo Radice (aka John Morghen), who plays the town idiot, Bob, wanders around the aforementioned Zombie sets until he goes into a house, finding a blow-up sex doll which automatically inflates. He smirks as he ponders what he's going to do with it, but suddenly cries out in terror when he sees a decayed corpse lying next to it, covered in worms that are crunching really loudly. Of course, Fulci's camera pans ever-so-lovingly over the slime and wriggling creatures for our maximum enjoyment. And none of this has anything to do with the plot thus far.

Later, a young couple is making out in their jeep when the dead priest appears, eerily illuminated in the headlights and staring at the girl until her eyes begin to bleed. Her boyfriend is played by Michele Soavi, who went on to become a director in his own right with films like Stage Fright and the magnificent Dellamorte Dellamore. Here, he can only stare in horror and make gagging noises as she vomits out her entire intestinal tract in the film's most riotous scene. At first, just the small intestines come slithering out as she makes "blehh, blehh" noises, but the sequence climaxes with gigantic organs speedily being ejected from the obvious dummy head. Then, a hand grabs the back of Soavi's skull, ripping it open and squeezing out his brain. Now that's one powerful grip.

The priest claims another soul by giving her a worm facial, and her grief-stricken father accuses Bob, exacting his revenge by forcing the poor sap down onto a drill press and ventilating his head. This killing is actually quite good effects work by Fulci fave Gino De Rossi, who'd so memorably penetrated a victim's eye with a wooden splinter in Zombie.

Yet another young girl, Emily (Antonella Interlenghi) is killed and her family, consisting of two really old parents and a really young little brother named John-John (Luca Venantini), come to mourn her at the funeral home. In a nearby coffin is the body of an elderly neighbor who'd also recently handed in her dinner pail, and she's wearing a hilarious wig that looks like it was skinned off a poodle's ass. Remember her...she'll be back.

Emily's boyfriend is the town psychiatrist, Gerry, played by Carlo De Mejo, who's the real-life son of Suspiria's Alida Valli. How's that for family horror connections? Still recovering from the shock of her tragic death, he gets a call from his jittery patient Sandra (Janet Agren) who begs him to hurry over to her house. When he arrives, she shows him to the kitchen where — yep — Mrs. Poodle-Ass herself is lying on the floor. She doesn't stay there for long, though. The body disappears and soon there are sounds coming from upstairs. Emily has a complete meltdown and pleads to Gerry, "I don't want to see her again! Tell her to go!", but he insists that they carefully search the house room by room as opposed to just getting the hell out of there.

Soon Gerry and Sandra team up with Mary and Peter, and as they're standing in somebody's house trying to decide what to do, the window suddenly blows open and a never-ending stream of maggots come pouring in. Surprisingly, everyone just stands there, mouths closed and squinting to keep the little buggers from getting into their orifices. Didn't it occur to anyone to leave the room — or at the very least turn around? Maybe one of the actors suggested it and Fulci said:

"NO! The maggoti must-a stick-a to you FACE!" (That'd make a great t-shirt.)

Next, they go to rescue John-John, whose annoying, worm-faced sister has killed their parents and plans to do the same to him. Unfortunately, Sandra falls victim to the brain-squeeze technique we'd seen demonstrated earlier, and even though it's supposed to be Emily doing the squeezing, it's clearly a man's hand that's shown.

Leaving John-John with a cop (who seems clearly annoyed when he says, "All right...I'll take care of him"), the remaining three go to the cemetery and down into the crypt that the trouble-making priest had been buried in. You see, only by killing the priest will they be able to close the gates of Hell know the drill. At least Bob did — get what I did there?

Oh, did I mention that all the victims so far besides Emily have also risen from the dead and come to menace some old drunks at a roadhouse? Fulci builds the suspense in this scene to an unbearable degree by slow-w-w-ly panning the horror in the tipplers' rheumy eyes before the zombies start consuming their well-marinated carcasses.

But the three finally make it to the crypt where Sandra waits to put the squeeze on Peter's brain. Gerry retaliates by stabbing her in the abdomen with a handy spear, causing more worms, maggots and guts to pour out. Sensing a theme here?

Finally, they locate the priest and dispatch him by stabbing him in the crotch with a large wooden cross, which causes all of the zombie helpers that have been shuffling around the crypt to burst into flames and rotate slowly as if they're being cooked on a spit.

Gerry and Mary emerge, filthy but relieved, and the elated John-John comes racing toward them. At first they smile and get ready to embrace him, but suddenly Mary screams, and the final image of the kid running toward them in slow-motion shatters like a pane of glass. Eh?

If you haven't treated yourself to a screening of City of the Living Dead yet, you must immediately buy, rent or download it. Otherwise, no dead body will be able to rest in peace again.


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