Sunday, October 31, 2010

GOOD SCARE DAY

Happy Halloween everybody!

My pal Gayle Bass & I spent a jolly hour or so last night on KTAR’s The Jay Lawrence Show talking about horror movies. Gayle snapped this photo of Your Humble Narrator in studio:



I just thought I ought to wear something extra-stylish.

Always great to hang with Gayle, & with the mighty Jay.

Here, by the way, is a ranking of the 50 Least Scary Horror Movies of All Time. It strikes me as a pretty spot-on overview of how lame my favorite genre has been over the last thirty years or so, & I especially appreciate how many of the selections are torture porn & gratuitous remakes of ‘70s & ‘80s faves. But while I’m sure plenty of people will disagree with me, I would argue that a horror movie not being scary does not, in itself, mean it’s not a blast. For instance, while I admit that none of them is very scary, from this list I’m fond of Anaconda (35), Dead Silence (5) & Wes Craven’s 1985 The Hills Have Eyes Part II (12).

Friday, October 29, 2010

WITCH SESSION

It’s Halloween weekend, & I heartily agree with this guy:


You could just tune in to TCM this evening for a fine line-up of Hammer Frankensteins: Curse of, & Revenge of, Created Woman & Must Be Destroyed. But in honor both of the holiday & of Christine O’Donnell, candidate for U.S. Senate next Tuesday in Delaware, I would direct you to 1972’s Season of the Witch, one of George A. Romero’s lesser-known efforts.



It stars the impressive Jan White as Joan Mitchell, a bored, horny upscale-suburban housewife. Neglected by her big dull dope of a husband, Joan drifts, somehow quite plausibly, both into an inappropriate relationship with her daughter’s casual boyfriend (Ray Laine), a creepy academic, & also into witchcraft. Romero doesn’t clarify whether the terrors which ensue are psychological, supernatural or a bit of both. The focus is as much on then-trendy bourgeois alienation as on fright; it’s almost like a horror picture that John Cassavetes might have made, except with community-theatre actors.

Romero’s best film, apart from his classic 1968 debut Night of the Living Dead, is probably Martin, his harrowing take on vampirism from 1977. Season isn’t quite on that level, but it’s still pretty good. It certainly, you should pardon the expression, casts a spell—an eerie, upsetting atmosphere of unwholesome eroticism which reaches its peak when poor Joan, unable to escape the sound of her daughter having sex in the next room, writhes around on her bed, on the verge of engaging in that activity of which Candidate O’Donnell so disapproves.


The Anchor Bay DVD edition of Season of the Witch also includes a bonus movie, Romero’s even-more-obscure 1971 drama There’s Always Vanilla, about an Army vet’s wistful love affair with a model. Romero has reportedly called this arty effort his worst movie, but he’s quite wrong—just off the top of my head, I’d call it better than Land of the Dead or Diary of the Dead. It’s an amusing little artifact.

RIP to James MacArthur, aka “Danno” from Hawaii 5-0, passed on at 72.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

SOMETIMES BAD IS BALD

With Halloween weekend upon us…

Monster-of-the-Week: …it’s appropriate we acknowledge one of the all-time greats: “Count Orlok,” the first, albeit unauthorized, screen representation of Count Dracula, in F. W. Murnau’s 1922 masterpiece Nosferatu, A Symphony of Terrors. This is the rare figure from silent film that genuinely has the power to spook me—I can honestly say that I’ve gotten creeped out, stumbling to the bathroom at night, imagining that I’d see this bald-pated goblin-Count standing at the end of the hallway glaring at me:

Your Humble Narrator went through quite a Kerouac phase in what Kerouac himself called “the beat and evil days” of my mid-20s. I later came to find much of his work exasperating, but I still think that the first half of On the Road is one of the great rushes in American literature, & I love the superb “Mexico Fellaheen” essay in Lonesome Traveler, & some of the other pieces in that book are pretty good.

I also admire his description, from a New Yorker Film Society program of 1960, of Nosferatu’s vampire:

The Count Nosferatu [sic] has the long hook nose of a Javelin vampire bat, the large eyes of a Rhinolophidae vampire bat, long horsey mouth looking like it's full of W-shaped cusps with muggly pectinated teeth and molars and incisors like Desmondontae vampire bats with a front tooth missing the better to suck the blood, maybe with the long brush-tipped tongue of the sanguisuga so sanguine. He looks in his hunched swift walk like he probably also has his intestinal tract specially modified in accordance with his nocturnal habits…the general horrid hare-lipped look of the Noctilio…small guillotines in his mouth. His hands are like the enormous claws of  the Lepornius bat and keep growing longer and longer fingernails throughout the picture.

You can watch the whole movie, here.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

LOWERING THE BARBIE

Yet another documentary: Check out my review of Hotel Terminus: The Life and Times of Klaus Barbie on Jabcat on Movies.

The amazing Marcel Ophuls film—1988’s Oscar winner for Best Feature Documentary—comes out on DVD today from Icarus Films, the friendly folks who brought you Middletown.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

BREAKING NEWS

Driving home on I-17 home past Calvary Community Church, I looked over at their big electric sign, which read:

JESUS REIGNS!

At a glance, though, I thought it said:

JESUS RESIGNS!

You could hardly blame Him…

Friday, October 22, 2010

STRONG STUFF

As you may have noticed, Your Humble Narrator has been up to His Humble Eyeballs in documentaries lately. A couple of them, both of which pack a powerful punch, play this weekend here in the Valley.



Strongman—Zachary Levy directed this painfully probing portrait of Stanley “Stanless Steel” Pleskun, a strongman from South Brunswick, New Jersey. Stan performs feats of strength in the old style—lifting pick-up trucks with his legs & bending pennies with his fingers. His abilities are legitimately astounding, but he’s unable to significantly capitalize on them. A soft-spoken, guileless fellow (he kept reminding me of the late actor Maury Chaykin) who works as a junk-hauler by day & who seems to live mostly on a diet of corn-on-the-cob, he simply has no luck breaking out of the small-potatoes category. His family life is no picnic, either.

Somehow nothing about Stan’s persona works, in show-business terms. He’s likable & sympathetic, but intense, eccentric, short-tempered. He giggles happily when he watches The Honeymooners on TV, but he hasn’t a whisper of humor onstage. He has a stubbornly purist streak, & seethes over other strongman acts that he suspects are based on fakery. He plainly adores Barbara, his sad-Madonna beauty of a girlfriend, but he bullies her too, forcing her into the role of his announcer though she has even less panache than he.

From early on in Strongman I found myself feeling very protective of Stan; when he goes to London for an appearance on a British stunt-variety show, I was on the edge of my seat, praying that it wouldn’t be a disaster. As Stan becomes more & more frustrated, the movie becomes, in a sense, an ordeal, but it’s an emotionally valid ordeal—you’re brought so close to this brooding, struggling guy that you feel like you have a stake in his soul.

Levy (who met Stan while shooting a stunt he was performing for an NBC special) never, ever mocks his subject. Even so, the movie has moments of low-key comedy, as when, at the end of a performance for some middle-class suburban kids at a party, Stan offers the following: “I want you kids to go down the right road, and…never be with the bad kids…You don’t got to learn the hard way, there’s no such thing as being cool.

This may be my favorite piece of role-model advice ever.

The film plays Friday & Saturday only at MadCap Theater in Tempe.



Tony and Janina’s American Wedding—The two title figures, Tony & Janina Wasilewski, are Polish immigrants in Chicago. They met, married, started a successful cleaning business & had a son here in the U.S., after which Janina was deported back to Poland. She had requested political asylum when she first moved here, but her request was denied in the mid ‘90s because Poland was no longer Communist by then. She failed—because of the language barrier, she says—to understand that she was being asked to leave voluntarily.

So she’s shipped off with her five-year-old, & Tony is left in a state of lonely, baffled bereavement—he looks like he’s been hit with a baseball bat. Nonetheless, he throws himself into activism, campaigning doggedly in support of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. As the movie progresses, we see the fierce faith in the American Dream fading from his eyes.

Director Ruth Leitman’s vigil with this shattered family deflates the ugly inanities about the immigration issue—it shows the “Anchor Baby” narrative, for instance, for the vicious lie it is. It’s a sad & angry film, & it’s well worth seeing.

No Festival Required screens the film at 7:15 p.m. Friday at Metro Arts High School. Details here.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

MINER CLASSIC

The best TV channel ever, Turner Classic Movies, is really stepping up to deliver some cool Halloween fare this October. So both because it’s playing there Friday at 11:30 p.m. (Phoenix time), & because it continues our mining theme from last Thursday…

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod this week to any of the title characters of The Boogens, tentacled fanged horrors from the bowels of an abandoned Colorado mine who terrorize attractive collegians, among them the lovely Rebecca Balding & Anne-Marie Martin.


Check out the trailer for this lively 1981 schlocker here.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE MIDWEST

Attempts to isolate & chronicle the lives of average, everyday Americans are always potentially offensive, simply because they presuppose that there’s such a thing as average, everyday Americans—or average, everyday people of any country. Middletown, a series of six documentaries for Public Television about life in Muncie, Indiana at the end of the ‘70s & the beginning of the ‘80s, is impressive precisely because none of its subjects seem ordinary or average.



Released on DVD from Icarus Films last month—it took me a while to work my way through all six films—Middletown was created by Peter Davis, famous for such incendiary docs as Hearts and Minds & The Selling of the Pentagon. Davis took his inspiration from the famous “Middletown Studies” conducted in the 1920s by husband-&-wife sociologists Robert & Helen Lynd. The categories for observation developed by the Lynds were (broadly) Work, Play, Family, Religion, Community, Education. Davis built one film apiece around each of these themes, & the result is a overarching but never reductive view of the town & the time.

The series begins with The Campaign, directed by Tom Cohen. It profiles both candidates in Muncie’s mayoral race: Jim Carey, an old-school, glad-handing Irish Democrat (Broderick Crawford could have played him in a fiction version) with a history of corruption charges (& acquittals) & Alan Wilson, a reserved, milquetoast Republican who seems miserable over the possibility he might win.

Part Two is E. J. Vaughn’s The Big Game, an account of the coaches & players in a basketball game between high school rivals Muncie Central & Anderson High. Part Three is Community of Praise, directed by Richard Leacock & the very young Marisa Silver, about a troubled family’s religious life in a tiny fundamentalist group headed by a veterinarian, who performs exorcisms in the back of his clinic.

Part Four is Family Business, also directed by Cohen, about the struggle of a retired marine officer, his wife & their children to keep a Shakey’s Pizza franchise afloat. Part Five, directed by Davis himself, is Second Time Around, in which two divorcees in their thirties plan their wedding & attempt to negotiate the terms of the marriage that will follow it.

The last & longest segment, Seventeen, was also the most controversial. Directed by Joel DeMott & Jeff Kreines, it depicts the efforts of a few well-meaning, ineffectual teachers at Southside High to drill a bit of knowledge & responsibility into the heads of their seniors, intercut with the off-campus lives of the students themselves—drinking, partying, making out & generally stirring up unnecessary drama. PBS declined to air this chapter, owing to all the swearing, pot-smoking & boozing, & also possibly to pressure from southern affiliates over scenes of interracial dating.

Some of the films are stronger than others—my own favorite was the riveting Family Business, with its jabbering, maddening, magnetic characters, who seem like a theatrical clan forced into pizzamaking. But The Campaign is also a jaw-dropper, not least because of the civility & decency that both of the (clearly imperfect) candidates demonstrate, toward each other & the process. You may well find yourself wishing that current campaigns were more like this.

Each of Middletown’s six slices of life will appeal to different tastes, but all six are worthwhile. The Icarus boxed set has a Special Feature—a short interview with Peter Davis—& a booklet that includes Where-Are-They-Now information.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

RIP TO MR. C

Just days after Barbara Billingsley, another iconic TV parent, Tom Bosley, has departed. Bosley was so indelible as Howard Cunningham on Happy Days that it may be forgotten that he was a no-kidding Broadway star, winning the Tony Award in 1959 for his performance in the title role of Fiorello!

Saturday, October 16, 2010

KICK-STARTING A CAMPIAGN

Check out this, possibly the greatest political ad EVER...



RIP to uber-Mom Barbara Billingsley, passed on at 94, & to Simon MacCorkindale, passed on at 58...

Thursday, October 14, 2010

HEARTS & MINES

Like so many people worldwide, I found I didn’t get tired of watching Chilean miners getting pulled out of that hole in the ground. In their honor...

Monster-of-the-Week: …let’s give the nod to this guy…



He’s one of the Cornish undead in Plague of the Zombies. What, besides putrifying, are these wretched carcasses doing wandering around 19th-Century Cornwall, you may ask?

Mining.

Turns out the haughty local Squire (John Carson), who picked up some mad voodoo skills during his youth in Haiti (or “Hi-YAY-tee,” as it’s pronounced in this movie), has enslaved them in order to put them to work in his tin mine: The ultimate scabs.



This 1966 creeper is available on DVD. It also played just last weekend on TCM, as part of the channel’s October tribute to Hammer films, which continues this Friday with a quartet of the studio’s “Mummy” chillers, including The Mummy’s Shroud & Blood From the Mummy’s Tomb.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

...THE BAKER, THE HORROR-FLICK MAKER...

RIP to British director Roy Ward Baker, who has passed on at 93. Well-known for such respectable flicks as A Night to Remember (1958), Baker also brought a classy professionalism to many Brit horror efforts, among them Scars of Dracula, The Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires, The Vault of Horror, Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (with the ravishing Martine Beswick as the second of the title characters) and possibly the sexiest of all vampire movies, 1970’s The Vampire Lovers, starring the incomparable Ingrid Pitt.
Baker's best film, however, may have been the moody, unnerving Quatermass feature Five Million Years to Earth. I’ve also always liked his 1969 “moon western” Moon Zero Two. Check out its great theme song here.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Friday, October 8, 2010

YES WE CANNABIS

Friday & Saturday Tempe’s Madcap Theater plays Adam Ross’s documentary Cash Crop. The bounty of the title is of course marijuana, which is now reportedly the number one cash crop in 12 states.


California is one of these, & it’s on California that Ross focuses, tracing the homegrown biz along the coast from the Mexican border north, along the Camino Real. The film’s obvious implication is that weed ought to be fully legitimized as an industry.

The movie hangs out in its second half in Mendocino & Humboldt counties, where growing weed has largely filled the gap created by the collapsing timber & fishing industries. Ross gives us portraits of the pot growers & enthusiasts along the trail—young white Rastafarians, grumpy wizened hippies, New Agers, winery yuppies, ranchers. They all seem like perfectly decent folks, but they also seem like they’re trying as hard as possible to conform to the middle-American stereotypes of the Golden State. They’re exactly what people in Des Moines picture when they hear the word “Californians.”

His most interesting talking head is a Mendocino County sheriff, who looks & sounds like a typical conservative law-&-order type. This guy notes that he’s never used pot in his life, but he’s fed up with wasting time & resources—an insane 30%, he estimates—on pot cases. “Let’s move on,” he says bluntly (excuse the adverb).

His position more or less speaks for me. As a piece of cinema, Cash Crop is supple & subtly rhythmic, easily the best “potumentary” I’ve seen, & I’ve seen, & reviewed, a couple of them over the years. I’m always amused by the way these films gaze yearningly on leaves & buds the way another director might ogle a woman’s legs, & Ross does some of this.

His efforts are wasted on me, I’m afraid; like the sheriff I’m not a consumer. I don’t have a personal dog in this race, but also like the sheriff I regard the need to “move on” on this issue as such a no-brainer that it scarcely needs argument.

Again & again, however, attempts to legalize, decriminalize, allow for medicinal usage, etc., are battled by the Right—somehow their fabled libertarianism isn’t roused on this matter. But here, alas, is the challenge for a film like this.

Even a Tea Partier might be convinced by this film that legalization is good idea, if only to provide jobs & thwart foreign traffickers. But they, of course, won’t see it. Cash Crop is pleasant hymn, sung straight to the choir.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

A PAIN IN THE NECK

While it’s right that Tony Curtis, departed last week at 85, be remembered first & foremost for his fine work in classics such as Some Like It Hot, Sweet Smell of Success, Spartacus, The Boston Strangler & The Defiant Ones

Monster-of-the-Week: …this week’s let’s acknowledge his less-celebrated work by giving the nod to the title character of The Manitou...



...a hideous fetal reincarnation of an Indian medicine man who emerges from a growth on the neck of Susan Strasberg...



Curtis is the hero of this 1978 shocker—he plays a fake psychic who teams up with a modern-day Indian shaman (Michael Ansara) to try to stop the Manny’s mischief. On the list of the funniest movies Curtis ever made, this probably comes in second only to Some Like It Hot.

Monday, October 4, 2010

MULTICULTURALISM

My pal Al, back in my beloved hometown of Erie, Pa., sent me this pic of the specials at a local culinary establishment…



That’s right—an Italian-style pierogi platter. At an Irish pub.

That’s how we roll in Erie.

Friday, October 1, 2010

UNDERGROUND SUCCESS

A couple of good ones open here in Phoenix this week:


Buried— The hero of this thriller is Ryan Reynolds, as an American contractor in Iraq—a truck driver—who wakes up to find himself in a wooden coffin. The movie stays in this freakin’ box with him for its entire length. He has a cell phone (with remarkable reception!) & he soon learns that the kidnappers who have interred him are demanding a million dollars ransom.

This was hardship duty for Your Humble Narrator, the title state being a phobia of mine. For the first twenty heart-pounding minutes or so, I seriously considered leaving the theatre; I didn’t, but at one point I found I had to change seats—I had to exercise my liberty to move around. So I doubt that this one will become a beloved favorite of mine, but I must say, it’s an impressive accomplishment.

The director, Rodrigo Cortes, doesn’t allow himself any flashbacks, he doesn’t cut to the people Reynolds talks to on the phone. The closest he comes to a “cheat” are some cut-away views of the box, bordered by darkness, & one psychic image of Reynolds seemingly at the bottom of a very deep coffin, representing his sense of abandonment. We also watch a video with Reynolds on his cell phone screen. Other than that, Cortes uses only shifts in illumination from the various sources (cell phone, lighter, etc) ingenious angling, & the sustained, moving performance of Reynolds to keep the film from visual monotony, & he succeeds entirely.

There’s a big scare scene about midpoint—an attempt to compound the horror by adding another classic phobia—that seemed contrived & corny to me. Apart from that one misstep, Buried strikes me as a triumph. The desire to see this man liberated becomes almost a physical sensation. The script, by Chris Sparling, manages one inventive gambit after another to keep the confined situation dynamic, & the dialogue is accomplished—the hero’s conversation, near the end, with a representative (voiced by Stephen Tobolowsky) of his employer is a masterstroke of pitch-black comedy.

Buried has a rich, Bernard Herrmann-style musical score, & a graphically flamboyant opening title sequence in the style of Saul Bass. It's clear that Cortes meant these in homage to Hitchcock, who loved to challenge himself with proscribed situations like this, as in Rope or Lifeboat. I would guess that if Hitchcock could see this movie, he would nod with approval, & maybe even with a pang of envy.



The Social Network—Almost two years ago, a friend of mine suggested that I sign on to Facebook. Within a couple of days, I had reconnected with dozens of people from my high school & college years & other earlier chapters of my life, many of whom I hadn’t heard from in decades, some of whom I barely knew even back then. It never occurred to me to wonder who I had to thank for this heady experience, or who (apart from myself) I had to blame for the countless hours I spent surfing & staring & e-gabbing with this sudden virtual circle.

Turns out it was a certain Mark Zuckerberg, a computer geek from White Plains who developed the site at Harvard after being tapped by two identical twin BMOCs, Cameron & Tyler Winklevoss (could you make this stuff up?), to work up a social network for the Ivy League set. While stringing these lads along, Zuckerberg took the exclusivity on which their idea was based a step further for his own site—he made each individual user an arbiter of access to their own page. When this inspiration took off, the enraged Winklevoss brothers—the “Winklevii,” as Zuckerberg calls them—took him to federal court for intellectual property theft. As Facebook begins to quickly take over the universe, Zuckerberg, now in cahoots with Napster bad boy Sean Parker, manages to alienate his initial investor & only true friend, Eduardo Saverin.

That, at least, is this film’s take. The trailer made it look like the tale of an Everynerd & the Big Bad Bluebloods who want to steal his brilliant invention from him, & superficially that’s what the movie is, but director David Fincher & screenwriter Aaron Sorkin had the marvelous tactical sense not to take the Frank Capra route. They present Zuckerberg, crisply played by Jesse Eisenberg, as a miserable, bitter asshole, a seething mass of sullen horniness & Jewish WASP-envy, & Parker, excellently played by Justin Timberlake, as an even bigger douchebag who brought out the worst in him. They even make the Winklevoss brothers a little bit likable.

Somehow this allows us to accept Zuckerberg as a genius, & the brothers as pissed-off spoiled rich boys, without feeling played by the movie. This doesn’t mean, of course, that the movie isn’t playing us—I can’t speak to how accurate or slanted an account it is. But the trademark self-deprecating wit of Sorkin’s surgical dialogue & Fincher’s smooth direction create at least the illusion of even-handedness. In any case, it’s a swift, entertaining, well-acted picture. The standout in the cast is the charming Andrew Garfield as Saverin (I understand he’s also the new Spider-Man, & he seems a great choice to me—he’s a ringer for Peter Parker as he was drawn in the comics).



A fond farewell to Tony Curtis, who has passed on at 85. Sometimes he was a kitschy Hollywood hack, & sometimes a truly top-notch actor, but he was never less than lovable in either case.