Wednesday, January 15, 2020


(1961) Directed by Ishirô Honda; Written by Shin'ichi Sekizawa; Based on the novel The Luminous Fairies and Mothra, by Shin'ichirô Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga and Yoshie Hotta; Starring: Furankî “Frankie” Sakai, Hiroshi Koizumi, Kyôko Kagawa, Yumi Itô, Emi Itô and Jerry Itô; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating ***½

“We wanted to do something that was new, for the whole family, like a Disney or Hollywood type of picture. We wanted it to be brighter, nicer.” – Ishirô Honda (from Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa, by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, with Yuuko Honda-Yun)

When you create one of the most distinctive, fearsome giant monsters of all time, how do you top it? To start with, you don’t. Seven years after Gojira made its debut, producer Tomoyuki Tanaka and Toho went back to the drawing board. Instead of creating a bigger, meaner rival to the super-sized reptile, they devised a whole new class of kaiju. The resulting movie, Mothra, is a different beast from Gojira. The titular creature, along with its origin, is less menacing, and more fanciful. While there’s plenty of room for social commentary, the overall tone is lighter, with an emphasis on fantasy over widespread devastation (although the film doesn’t skimp in that department).

After four shipwreck survivors are found alive and well on remote Infant Island (thought uninhabitable, due to atomic testing), a scientific expedition is launched to gather more facts. Although it’s a Japanese vessel and crew, the expedition is bankrolled by foreign tycoon Clark Nelson (played with great, sneering panache by Jerry Itô, billed as “Jelly” Itô in the American version), whose motivations go beyond simple intellectual curiosity. Sensing a story, intrepid reporter Senichiro “Zen” Fukuda (Furankî “Frankie” Sakai) stows away on the ship. When they reach the South Pacific isle, they discover a lush jungle and native population, including a pair of tiny twin fairies* (played by twin sisters Yumi and Emi Itô, aka, singing group, “The Peanuts”). Sensing an opportunity to make a quick buck (or equivalent), Nelson abducts the twins, transplanting them to Japan to star in his new revue, “The Secret Fairies Show.” Nelson learns too late that one of their seemingly innocuous songs is a distress call, which carries a telepathic link. They soon awaken an ancient creature on Infant Island, driven by an unrelenting compulsion to bring them back home. Unfortunately for Tokyo and anything else that’s in the way, it can only mean untold property damage and displaced citizens.  

* Fun Fact #1: According to the informative Mill Creek Blu-ray commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, the original story called for four 60-cm fairies, instead of the two 30-cm women that appear in the film.   

If some of the above description sounds familiar (minus the fairies), it’s not by accident, but design that the basic plot in Mothra parallels King Kong (1933). Director Ishirô Honda admitted to the many similarities, but with one principal difference: unlike the film with the big ape, his oversized moth* wasn’t destined for a tragic end. Otherwise, it’s easy to see how many elements are similar: the expedition, an isolated island populated by natives who worship a giant creature, an unscrupulous promoter, a squadron of fighter jets, and a towering city landmark that becomes a centerpiece for a key scene.

* Fun Fact #2: According to the disc commentary, Mothra’s caterpillar stage was the largest costume ever created by Toho, measuring approximately seven meters in length, and requiring five to six people to operate it.

Compared to King Kong, however, Mothra is more socio-politically conscious, reflecting some of the controversies of the time. As originally envisioned by Honda and the writers, the film would have been more political, but many of those elements were trimmed in favor of entertainment. Even with the necessary compromises, the finished product still leaves much for contemporary audiences to consider. The specter of the fictional country of Rolisica (a thinly veiled melding of the United States and Russia) looms over the story, with its militaristic society, imperialistic intentions, and (paralleling U.S. nuclear testing in the South Pacific) casual attitudes toward displacing indigenous cultures. On the other hand, Mothra dilutes its message a bit when the Infant Island “natives” are depicted by Japanese actors in brown-face. Cultural insensitivities aside, it’s easy to agree that the unconscionable entrepreneur Nelson (who’s backed by the Rolisican government), is the embodiment of all the negative aspects of outsiders, rolled into one. In his quest to obtain the fairies for his own gain, he thinks nothing of mowing down a group of unarmed natives with rifles. When he finally has his prize, Nelson’s dismissive attitude is laid bare as he comments, “Those fairies aren’t human. They’re merchandise.” *

* Not So Fun Fact: Sadly, Nelson’s abhorrent behavior is not without precedent. His treatment of the fairies recalls human zoos, which flourished in the late 1800s, lasting well into the mid-1900s.

In addition to Jerry Itô’s scene-stealing turn, Mothra boasts some fine performances by the other cast members, especially Frankie Sakai as tenacious reporter Zen, who likens himself to a snapping turtle (a bulldog in the American version). Comic actor Sakai keeps things from getting too serious, with some well-placed moments of schtick. Zen’s counterpart, plucky photographer Michi Hanamura (played by veteran actress Kyôko Kagawa, in her only kaiju film), lends balance to his scenes, keeping everything from going too far over the top. Also watch for a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance of Honda regular Kenji Sahara as a helicopter pilot. Arguably, the true stars of Mothra, outside of the giant insect itself, are pop duo The Peanuts, who convey a childlike innocence and grace under adversity. Their signature song needs no introduction, as it’s become firmly entrenched in pop culture.   

Eiji Tsuburaya and his effects crew put their all into the film, to make the star attraction,* in its final form, a truly memorable creation. Somewhat more refined versions of Mothra would appear in later movies, but the basic design owes much to this early version. Other standout effects sequences include a bursting dam, and a detailed replica of Tokyo Tower, where the juvenile Mothra, aka: The Very Angry Caterpillar (my apologies to Eric Carle for the cheap shot) undergoes a metamorphosis. The film’s climax,** which takes place in the Rolisican capitol, dubiously named New Kirk City (an amalgamation of New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles), provides another chance for Tsubaraya to showcase his signature brand of wholesale destruction.  

* Fun Fact #3: There were three Mothra models used for the film: 1) a small version, used only for long shots, 2) a medium version, with flexible wings; and 3) a large version with a 2.5-meter wingspan, with more rigid wings and illuminated eyes.

** Fun Fact #4: A different ending was originally shot, which has been presumed lost (although still frames exist). The original cost-conscious ending, featuring a confrontation between Nelson and Mothra was nixed by Columbia, in favor of the conclusion in an urban setting (New Kirk City).

Some might argue there’s an awful lot of build-up before we see the star attraction, in all its glory. The big “M” doesn’t appear, in its final form at least, until well into the third act. Before that, we’re treated to some shenanigans with Nelson, The Fairies, and Zen. When Mothra finally shows up, our patience is rewarded. Minor quibbles aside, it’s a solid debut for one of Toho’s most inspired, enduring, and yes, beautiful, creations. It’s the big bug movie to end all big bug movies (Okay, that distinction belongs to Them, but do you know what? Mothra is a close second.). The enduring kaiju would live to fight another day, facing off against Godzilla in 1964’s Mothra vs. Godzilla, and appear in numerous sequels. I anxiously await Mothra’s inevitable return.

Sources for this review: Ishiro Honda: A Life in Film, From Godzilla to Kurosawa, by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski, with Yuuko Honda-Yun; and Mothra Blu-ray commentary by Steve Ryfle and Ed Godziszewski

Wednesday, January 8, 2020

Summer Wars

(2009) Directed by Mamoru Hosoda; Written by Satoko Okudera: Original story by Mamoru Hosoda; Starring: Ryûnosuke Kamiki, Nanami Sakuraba, Mitsuki Tanimura, and Sumiko Fuji; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ****

“This particular film revolves around one family, and the issues I think that family has to deal with are probably relatable to issues that face real families all over the world. That’s at the core of it; we started out telling the story of a family.” – Mamoru Hosoda

There’s something about a summery setting in movies that gets us (especially in the thick of winter, as of this writing) wistful about long hot days, short nights, and sipping our favorite cool beverage while lazing about. The reality, of course, is when we’re actually in the thick of it, it’s often too hot and sweaty to endure, and (at least from my perspective), it just makes me yearn for the reprieve that autumn brings. With Summer Wars, filmmaker Mamoru Hosoda (The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, The Wolf Children) recalls the idealized summer in our minds, with celebrations, good food and great company, accompanied by the ubiquitous sound of cicadas* in the countryside. Oh, and there’s this pesky AI that threatens the fate of the world…

* Fun Fact #1: If there’s one sound that’s synonymous with summer in Japan, it’s the humble cicada. There are 35 known species in Japan, each with its unique call. You can find out more here (including sound clips).

Popular college student Natsuki Shinohara (Kazuma Ikezawa) offers nerdy high schooler Kenji Koiso a unique opportunity to accompany her to her house over the summer, in exchange for some easy money. Unfortunately for Kenji, she doesn’t reveal the whole story. He learns, much to his horror, that she wants him to pretend to be her boyfriend/fiancé. They arrive at her ancestral home, to celebrate the 90th birthday of family matriarch Sakae Jin'nôchi (Sumiko Fuji). In the first of many trials that await him, Kenji must convince her grandmother and numerous family members that he’s the only one for her. Soon, he has much bigger fish to fry when his identity is hijacked, and he unwittingly enables the AI program “Love Machine” to take control of OZ, a vast virtual complex. On the one hand, OZ is a social network and gaming mecca, but it also controls worldwide commerce, finance and infrastructure. Suddenly, Kenji is accused of being a criminal mastermind, and to add icing to the cake, Natsuki’s ruse is revealed. An annoying prank becomes a dire harbinger of doom when Love Machine takes control of a wayward space probe, potentially targeting one of the world’s nuclear power plants. Now, he’s presented with a two-fold dilemma: patching things up with Natsuki’s family and saving the Earth.

One of the joys of Summer Wars is its meticulous depiction of Natsuki’s family.* While many of them would be little more than window dressing in another film, Hosoda takes the time to introduce us to the various members (30 individuals, according to Hosoda) and their idiosyncrasies. Sakae is the heart and soul of the Jin'nôchi clan, strong-willed, passionate, and above all, service-minded, with a strong sense of duty to her community. Even after Kenji’s bluff is called, she sees something in him the others don’t see, as a worthy companion for her granddaughter. Another key player is, Natsuki’s uncle, Wabisuke Jin'nôchi (Ayumu Saitô), brash, impulsive, impudent, and the brilliant creator of Love Machine. In his fight to help regain control of OZ, Kenji finds an unlikely ally in Natsuki’s young cousin, Kazuma Ikezawa (Mitsuki Tanimura), who leads a second virtual life under the avatar King Kazma, a badass martial arts rabbit. Even the family’s beloved Shiba Inu, Hayate, gets his moment in the sun. Hosoda somehow manages to keep the disparate elements of the family drama and looming cyber-threat up in the air without crashing to the ground. The overarching theme of loyalty under adversity defines how the family deals with its inner conflicts and how they face the global crisis. Beside the positive aspects of family, Hosoda masterfully captures the less than savory dynamics that many of us can likely relate to, with cliques, shaky alliances, and petty animosities.

* Fun Fact #2: If you’re a trifle confused (and who wouldn’t be?) about who’s who in the Jin'nôchi clan, there’s a handy fan wiki page, which attempts to set the record straight.

Kenji, by far, demonstrates the most growth among the myriad characters in the movie. When he arrives at the Jin'nôchi residence, he’s a fish out of water, unable to measure up to the imaginary boyfriend that Natsuki fabricated (based on her prototypical idol, Wabisuke). Poor Kenji, by contrast, is timid and soft-spoken, and has never dated before. He’s far from helpless, however; his superpower of sorts is his head for numbers, which enables him to decode long sequences. It’s gratifying to watch him find his place, as he discovers his own voice, teaming up with Natsuki’s family to battle a seemingly unstoppable enemy. 

The virtual world of OZ is colorful, immersive and bewildering, unrestricted by the boundaries of the physical world. It’s easy to see how someone could become lost in this alternate reality, where your avatar can be an idealized version of yourself, and you can live out your fantasies. On the flip side, Summer Wars illustrates the perils of such an online arena, where we blindly put our trust out in the ether, taking for granted our identities and information will be safe. As intriguing as OZ’s online universe is, the film remains firmly rooted in the real world (another movie from a lesser filmmaker might have made Oz the primary focus). The family drama is front and center, so we can appreciate how high the stakes are when they’re sucked into the mix. Visual spectacle is something quite a few filmmakers can do well, but the ability to incorporate believable characters you care about is in short supply. Managing to handle both deftly is a talent few can match. Filled with stunning imagery and an abundance of heart, Summer Wars is another winner to add to Mamoru Hosoda’s impressive resume.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Documentary December Quick Picks and Pans

Marwencol (2010) Jeff Malmberg’s brilliant documentary is a fascinating profile of one man’s search for inner peace and meaning amidst chaos. After suffering a horrific beating which left him physically and mentally damaged, Mark Hogancamp took a novel approach on his long road to recovery. His coping mechanism: creating an intricately detailed miniature village, populated by the people (represented by dolls) who live in his real-life town of Kingston, New York. In the fictitious village of Marwencol, Belgium, set in a perpetual WWII, Mark spins ongoing scenarios, where the residents contend with wartime violence, love triangles and intrigue. The central character is a grizzled American G.I., representing Mark’s idealistic vision of himself. Often sad, sporadically bittersweet, Marwencol is an engrossing exploration of an imperfect battle to find happiness and healing (even if he can’t control much of his situation, Mark can control this tiny part of the world).

Rating: ****½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy

In the Realms of the Unreal (2004) Meet Joseph Darger (or more accurately, his work), a reclusive hospital janitor who created an epic 15,000-page story over the course of his lifetime. Director Jessica Yu brings his story to life with narration by Dakota Fanning and Larry Pine (who recites selections from Darger’s writings), accompanied by animated versions of his unique illustrations. The narration is supplemented by interviews with the few individuals who knew him. Through these various means, we gain a rough composite of an intelligent, isolated man who had trouble fitting into the world or relating to other people. Through his voluminous story, he created a rich fantasy world, depicting an ongoing battle between good and evil, featuring young girls as his protagonists. It’s an intriguing, occasionally disturbing look at the hidden world one man fashioned, away from prying eyes.    

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story (2017) Writer/director Alexandra Dean introduces us to the Hollywood actress we thought we knew. You get the usual celebrity biographical elements, which chronicle the Austrian-Jewish émigré’s ups and downs in Hollywood, controversies, failed marriages, etc., but with an important twist. Through pictures, film clips, and interviews with friends, family and admirers, we learn about her first love – inventing. In 1942 she developed a method of secured communication, called “frequency hopping” which ultimately became the basis for today’s common technologies, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth. Unfortunately, due to sexism and short-sightedness, she failed to receive the credit (and monetary compensation) she was due. Bombshell is a cautionary tale about a book being judged by its cover – a story that sadly needs to be repeated in today’s less than enlightened age.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Kanopy

Motel (1989) Filmmaker Christian Blackwood travels throughout the American Southwest, to uncover the stories behind the anonymous budget lodgings we often take for granted along the road. The film is primarily structured around three profiles (a fourth profile, about a motel next to a drive-in, seems to have been cut short). In the first segment, we visit a slightly run-down motel in Santa Fe, New Mexico run by three independent middle-aged women. In one humorous scene, they re-enact a botched robbery attempt. The film continues with the Blue Mist motel in Florence, Arizona, situated across the street from a state penitentiary, featuring interviews with the wives of a few of the inmates, along with the motel’s gruesome history. In the concluding segment, we’re introduced to Marta Becket, a former professional dancer and proprietor of the 1920s-era Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, in Death Valley, California, where she runs a one-woman stage show. After watching Motel, you’ll likely wonder how many stories about these overlooked bits of Americana remain untold. You may never look at your town’s Motel 6 the same way again.

Note: It might take some digging to find this film. I was fortunate enough to find a copy at my local video store (the DVD-ROM, appeared to have been sourced from a VHS recording).

Rating: ****. Available on: N/A

Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist (1997) Kirby Dick’s warts-and-all documentary about Bob Flanagan, BDSM performance artist and lifelong sufferer of cystic fibrosis, is not for the squeamish, but surprisingly life (and death) affirming. Flanagan is candid about his losing battle with the debilitating disease, leaving no stone unturned to describe the ravages to his body (In one scene, he uses a plastic model to illustrate the effects on his system). Sick is unflinching and unsentimental in its depiction of Flanagan’s performances, which involve inflicting pain and pleasure in equal doses. To many viewers it might seem that he’s only exacerbating his suffering, but how he manipulates his body is his way of exercising control, even when he can’t change the progression of the very thing that’s slowly killing him. It’s also an unconventional love story, as we hear from his wife, Sheree Rose, who chronicles his life and death, and is an active participant in his performances.

Rating: ****. Available on DVD

Vampira and Me (2012) R.H. Greene’s affectionate documentary covers the short rise and long fall of actress/model Maila Nurmi, better known as Vampira. Built around a lengthy interview that the director conducted with Nurmi for another project, the film augments her recollections with vintage photos and the few surviving minutes of footage from her landmark 1950s TV show. Through these piecemeal elements, Greene provides a good composite of Vampira (based, in part, on Charles Addams’ character Morticia), and her pioneering show, which challenged the repressive norms of the era. The film also briefly illustrates Nurmi’s unsuccessful lawsuit against the producers of Elvira’s Movie Macabre (the parallels are too close to ignore). Despite the career setbacks and missed opportunities, Nurmi is surprisingly animated and upbeat in her interview segments, suggesting a strength and resilience that transcends her bitterness. Vampira and Me is a heartbreaking profile of someone who tasted fame, and deserved better than to be cast aside as a footnote in television history.  

Rating: ***½ stars. Available on Amazon Prime and Kanopy

The Search for Weng Weng (2007) Australian filmmaker/video store owner Andrew Leavold traveled to the Philippines to find out what happened to diminutive movie star Weng Weng (aka: Ernesto de la Cruz), who appeared in a handful of movies (including the cult James Bond parody, For Y’ur Height Only), and suddenly vanished. Through his quest, Leavold meets a few of the actors and film crew who worked with Weng Weng. His search eventually leads him to an interview with the notorious Imelda Marcos (who has fond recollections of hosting the performer at some of her movie industry parties). Unfortunately, many of the interviews seem based on hearsay, with sometimes contradictory information, and we never get to hear from the husband/wife producers who exploited Weng Weng. As a result, we’re left with a flawed profile of the actor, who faced discrimination and limited opportunities due to his 2-foot, 9-inch stature. At this point, however, this is probably the best biography we’re likely to get.  

Rating: ***½. Available on DVD

Bad Reputation (2018) This fun, albeit superficial profile of one of rock’s pioneering female singers starts out strong and fizzles in the second half. It’s at its best discussing Joan Jett’s early days in The Runaways (although bandmate Lita Ford is conspicuously absent from interviews), including sexism, poor critical reception and her DIY approach to marketing. It’s too bad the film loses its way somewhere around the midpoint, spending a little too much time with her manager, and not nearly enough time discussing the songwriting process. Bad Reputation suffers from a haphazard, unfocused structure, hopping around as if topics were added at the last minute. Some of the choices for interviewees are also less than inspired, as if the filmmakers just chose whomever was available that day. It’s less than it could have been, but Jett’s fans might want to give it a look.

Rating: ***. Available on DVD and Hulu

Friday, December 27, 2019

Short Take: Grey Gardens

(1975) Directed by Ellen Hovde, Albert Maysles, David Maysles, and Muffie Meyer: Edith ‘Little Edie’ Bouvier Beale, Edith Beale, Brooks Hyers, Jack Helmuth, Lois Wright; Available on DVD

Rating: ****

“I think that the film is kind of a Rorschach test, where it taps on the various abilities and disabilities of half of the audience – the ability to accept unconventionality, for example. Not everybody has that. But if you have it, then you’re more likely to very strongly connect with the film, and if you have a low tolerance for people who are different, then you might get embarrassed for these women…” – Albert Maysles (from 2001 Criterion DVD commentary)

A good documentary can transport you to a different place, providing an unprecedented glimpse into worlds we seldom see. Some provide journeys to exotic locations, while others delve into the superficially mundane, uncovering hidden surprises. Grey Gardens immerses us in the daily life of two eccentric individuals who originated from a position of great wealth and influence, and now exist in the tattered remains of their past glory.

The film opens with a brief primer (through a montage of newspaper articles) on the East Hampton, New York Beale estate, known popularly as Grey Gardens. The residents, elderly Edith Bouvier Beale (Jacqueline Onassis’ aunt) and her middle-aged daughter Edie (“Little Edie”), were nearly evicted, due to Grey Gardens’ advanced squalor. Filmmakers David and Albert Maysles set their sights on the two women, who enjoy a symbiotic, albeit occasionally adversarial relationship. The former socialites occupy only a couple of spots in their dilapidated 28-room mansion, along with a menagerie of cats and woodland creatures that pop in and out. The once-elegant home is an island, adrift in a sea of dense, overgrown foliage. Shots pan around to reveal the neighbors’ pristine homes, with their manicured grounds.

The filmmakers underscore the peculiar relationship between mother and daughter, and their push-pull power dynamic. Little Edie is full of contrasts and contradictions, at once yearning to break free from Grey Gardens, yet loyal to her domineering mother. She expresses a lifetime of regret and bitterness over dreams that weren’t followed, but seems content to live in a state of arrested development (In a moment of self-reflection, she observes, “It’s very difficult to keep the line between the past and the present. Do you know what I mean? Awful difficult.”). At times, she regresses to an earlier age, reacting to her mother’s frequent barbs like a petulant child, instead of a 56-year-old woman. In one of the most memorable scenes, Little Edie dances (in a moment she staged herself), in one of her many scarf ensembles,* with a small American flag, demonstrating a level of youthful exuberance that belies her age. She lives in a world of endless beauty pageants, debutante balls, and still fashions herself as the most eligible bachelorette in East Hampton (“I see myself as a young girl.”). “Big” Edith has a similar moment in the spotlight in an earlier scene, when she sings “Tea for Two,” accompanied by her recording from several decades past.

*Fun Fact: According to co-director/co-editor Ellen Hovdie, Little Edie always appeared in a head scarf, with a new ensemble every day. Much to their chagrin, the filmmakers never learned if she was hiding something, or just wanted to make a fashion statement.

Because this isn’t a success story, but rather a study of former glory gone to seed, it’s easy to get the impression that Grey Gardens would be a depressing viewing experience. The movie received a mixed reception at the time of its release, with some accusing the Maysles of exploiting the Beales. However, as the commentary by Albert Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer attests, Edith and Little Edie were quite self-aware of their image, and complicit in how they chose to be portrayed. The film’s critics seemed to miss the point. Grey Gardens doesn’t ask us to condone the Beales’ lifestyle, only to see things from a different (hopefully sympathetic) point of view. Despite a mixed reception during its initial release, Grey Gardens captured the imagination of others over the years, with midnight screenings, a Broadway musical, and a TV movie starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore as the elder and junior Beale, respectively. At its core, the film is a celebration of two people pursuing life on their own terms. Whether you love them or hate them, or are somewhere in between, their story is difficult to forget.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Dreams with Sharp Teeth

(2008) Written and directed by Erik Nelson; Starring: Harlan Ellison, Robin Williams, Neil Gaiman, Carol Cooper, Ronald D. Moore, Carol Cooper, Dan Simmons, Josh Olson, Susan Anne Toth; Available on DVD

Rating: ***½ 

“When you’ve been made an outsider, you are always angry. You respond to it in a lot of different ways: A lot of people get surly, a lot of people get mean, some people turn into serial killers. I got so smart that I could just kill ‘em with logic or their own mouths.” – Harlan Ellison

Even if you’ve never read a story from the late great author Harlan Ellison, you’ve probably experienced his impact on film and television. He left an indelible mark on genre television, having penned some of the greatest episodes of the 1960s: “The City on the Edge of Forever” for Star Trek, and “Demon with a Glass Hand” and “Soldier” for The Outer Limits. His novella “A Boy and His Dog” was adapted for the excellent 1975 movie. He also made numerous talk show appearances, where his candor and venomous wit was on display. In his documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth, Erik Nelson presents an unsentimental but oddly affectionate profile of Ellison and his career.

The film opens with Ellison’s friend and admirer, Robin Williams, doing a fact check with the writer about some of his more infamous exploits. Ellison confirmed that he once mailed a dead gopher to a publishing house, attacked an ABC TV executive,* drove a truck with nitroglycerine as the cargo, and claims to have had sex with 500 women (Ellison corrected it to 700). On the other hand, he vehemently denied throwing a fan down an elevator shaft. Aside from these hyperbolic feats, his litany of exploits (real and imaginary) illustrates how much Harlan Ellison the personality is synonymous with Harlan Ellison the writer.

* Interesting Fact: Ellison recounted how he assaulted an ABC TV executive for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea in producer Irwin Allen’s office. In a moment of anger, Ellison threw a punch, causing the object of his ire to fall backward. This action in turn caused the Seaview submarine model to fall off the wall and onto the hapless executive, fracturing his pelvis.

It can be notoriously difficult for a movie to adequately convey what makes an artist or writer’s work great. Nelson does his best, featuring interviews with friends and admirers (including Neil Gaiman, Josh Olson, and others), but describing Ellison is a bit like the proverb of the blind men and the elephant – we learn about the parts, without getting a clear picture of the whole. As a result, it’s not too surprising that the best composite of Ellison is from the author himself. You could set the camera down anywhere, step away, and let Harlan Ellison do his thing, which is essentially what you see Nelson do. We get a taste for his inimitable prose style as he reads excerpts from some of his most popular stories and essays, such as his animated recital of one of his most famous short stories, "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman."

Ellison traces his childhood days growing up in a small town in Ohio, where he was mercilessly bullied and beaten up by classmates on a regular basis.* In one particularly revelatory scene, he confides how he couldn’t stand being made fun of. It’s easy to connect the dots, to see how his formative years shaped the rest of his life, and his interactions (positive and negative) with all who crossed his path. At its core, Dreams with Sharp Teeth is a profile of a man with strong convictions who’s burned many bridges along the way and would gladly burn them again, if given the chance. As the film argues, however, his irritation isn’t without purpose. He’s fiercely passionate about his craft,** and can’t abide not being adequately compensated for his work. He’s perpetually irked at everything, ready to zero in on his targets like a smart bomb. Some of the objects/individuals he mercilessly skewers include: companies that want something for nothing, the willfully illiterate, television, fans and fandom in general, ignorance and individuals who believe they have a right to an opinion (“I've got news for you, schmuck! You’re entitled to your informed opinion.”).

* Fun Fact #1: Ellison got his revenge over the years by incorporating the names of his childhood bullies in stories.

** Fun Fact #2: A quote on his trusty Olympia typewriter (he keeps several spares in a nook in his home) by musician P.J. Proby, states: “I am an artist, and should be exempt from shit.”

If there’s one quibble with Dreams with Sharp Teeth, it’s that the documentary lapses a little too much into unchecked adoration of its subject, leaving the profile of Ellison a trifle one-sided. Although we hear from his wife Susan (married until his death in 2018), we never hear from any of his four ex-wives or those who were on the receiving end of his verbal (and sometimes) physical assaults.* The film also discusses how he presided over writers workshops, where he alternately championed writers he deemed to have promise, and discouraged those whose writing didn’t meet his standards. This begs the question, what now famous writers did he discourage? It would have been interesting to hear from some of them as well. To some, being rejected by Ellison might have been a dubious (if not devastating) badge of honor (or shame, depending on your point of view).

* Fun Fact #3: In one scene, he describes an incident at a convention, when he purposely urinated on an over-eager fan’s shoe, when asked a question in the restroom.

Dreams with Sharp Teeth is a complex, multi-faceted (albeit flawed) portrait of a precocious boy with a big mouth who never quite grew up. He’s a giant in his field who could have soared to even loftier heights, if not for his irascible demeanor and uncompromising ideals. But if Ellison comes off as curmudgeonly and acerbic, he would probably be the first to agree, and say that he wouldn’t have it any other way. His faults arguably made him the great writer he was, fearless, fiercely unapologetic and endlessly inventive. There has never been anyone quite like Harlan Ellison before, and we may never see his like again.  

Sunday, December 1, 2019

November Quick Picks and Pans

The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946) The wealthy and powerful Martha Ivers (now O’Neil) (Barbara Stanwyck) is married to meek district attorney hopeful Walter O’Neil (Kirk Douglas in his film debut). Both individuals harbor a dark secret about her past, which is brought to light when her childhood friend rolls into town. Van Heflin plays Sam Masterson, a man from the wrong side of the tracks with a shady agenda. Stanwyck presents a complex, morally ambiguous performance as Martha, who still holds a flame for Sam. Lizabeth Scott is also good as Toni Marachek, a young woman with a checkered past, who vies for Sam’s affections. Filled with intriguing characters and more twists than a mountain road, you’re never sure where it’s going until the final scene.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Criss Cross (1949) Burt Lancaster and Yvonne De Carlo star as Steve and Anna, formerly married, now locked in a risky affair. Despite warnings from his friends and family that she’s nothing but trouble, he keeps returning to Anna like a moth to a bug zapper. She’s now married to a dangerous crime boss Slim Dundee (Dan Duryea), who begins to suspect something isn’t right. In order to nullify Slim’s concerns, Steve agrees to participate in an armored car heist. Meanwhile, Steve and Anna plot to double-cross Slim so they can be together again. Criss Cross illustrates how the heart may want what it wants, but it’s liable to drive you to ruin.

Rating: ****. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Bone Tomahawk (2015) The debut feature from writer/director S. Craig Zahler plays like a mix of The Searchers with The Hills Have Eyes. Kurt Russell stars as Sheriff Hunt, who leads a small posse to rescue his deputy (Evan Jonigkeit) and a young doctor, Samantha (Lili Simmons), from a band of cannibals. Zahler’s horror western is grim and gory, with moments of unexpected humor. Many of the lighter scenes can be attributed to Richard Jenkins as Chicory, Hunt’s eccentric second deputy with a postmodern sensibility and an unfortunate tendency to run off at the mouth. Bone Tomahawk is a disturbing, well-acted film that might not suit everyone’s taste, but it’s a refreshing departure from the expected.

Rating: ***½. Available on Blu-ray, DVD and Amazon Prime

Hangar 18 (1980) A decent cast and a wacky premise can’t save this dull conspiracy movie from seeming like a TV movie of the week with a slightly bigger budget. Space shuttle astronauts Steve Bancroft and Lew Price (Gary Collins and James Hampton) witness a fatal encounter with a UFO while they’re in orbit. Once they’re back on Earth, they’re pursued by feds (led by Robert Vaughn) that want to keep them quiet. While the chase is on, NASA official Harry Forbes (Darren McGavin, in an underwritten role) leads an elite team of scientists, who attempt to unlock the secrets of the captured alien spacecraft. Bad special effects, cheap looking sets and an uninspired UFO design elicit yawns rather than awe. It’s a shame the results are so lackluster. With the right filmmakers, this could have been fun.

Rating: **½. Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Short Take: D.O.A.

(1949) Directed by Rudolph Maté; Written by Russell Rouse and Clarence Greene; Starring: Edmond O'Brien, Pamela Britton, Luther Adler, Beverly Garland, Lynn Baggett and William Ching; Available on DVD, Kanopy and Amazon Prime 

Rating: **** 
“You knew who I was when I came in here today, but you were surprised to see me alive, weren’t you? But I’m not alive, Mrs. Phillips. Sure, I can stand here and talk to you, I can breathe, and I can move. But I’m not alive, because I did take that poison, and nothing can save me.” – Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien)

D.O.A.* starts off with a dynamite premise, told from the perspective of a man whose hours are numbered. In the opening scene, our protagonist, Frank Bigelow (Edmond O'Brien), arrives at a police station to report a murder – his own. The ensuing story, told in flashback, recounts his strange tale about how he came to be fatally poisoned, and his thirst for vengeance. His frenzied quest, as a man with nothing left to lose, takes him to Los Angeles (where the famous Bradbury Building makes an appearance) to track down a business associate, and back to San Francisco.

* Fun Fact: D.O.A. marks the film debut of Beverly Garland, who appears as Miss Foster, Mr. Phillips’ secretary.

As he’s introduced to us, Frank is a bit of a heel, but as the film progresses, he gradually becomes more sympathetic. He plans a solitary vacation to San Francisco, which doesn’t sit well with his co-dependent girlfriend/secretary Paula (Pamela Britton). Apparently never hearing the aphorism “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” she calls him repeatedly, sends a bouquet to his hotel room, and sensing that he’s in big trouble, travels to San Francisco to meet him. As obnoxious as her behavior seems on the surface, it serves to ground Frank, causing him to re-evaluate his relationship with her, and form a belated appreciation for her efforts.

In the space of a few days, Frank experiences all five stages of grief, as outlined by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book Death and Dying (Source: : 1) Denial – After he begins to feel a stomachache, a trip to the doctor confirms all isn’t well. Due to the poison he’s unwillingly ingested, he only has days to live. His incredulous reaction is understandable, given the circumstances (“This is a mistake. This could be a mistake.”); followed by 2) Anger – Unwilling to accept the bad news, Frank storms out of the office (“You’re crazy!”); 3) Bargaining – Frank visits another doctor, which only confirms the first prognosis; 4) Depression –This is best illustrated by the scene when Frank waits by a newsstand, watching happy couples pass by on the street. They’re presumably investing in bright futures – a future he and Paula will never share; and finally, 5) Acceptance – As indicated by the somber opening and closing scenes, Frank is resigned to his fate.

The filmmakers are purposefully coy about the poison, referring to the substance as “luminous toxin.” Judging by its glowing properties, we can deduce it’s something radioactive, but that’s about it. The end credits assert that luminous toxin is a real poison, but we’re left in the dark (pun intended) about what it is, specifically. The acting, along with the music from Dimitri Tiomkin, is turned up several notches, matching the frenetic pace of the film. This tone works well for Neville Brand’s memorable performance as Chester, a sadistic thug who takes pleasure in causing pain (He hits Frank in the stomach just to increase his suffering). D.O.A. packs a lot of entertainment in a scant 83 minutes, with a labyrinthine plot, ambiguous motivations, a host of colorful characters, and a fatalistic streak running throughout. If there’s one lesson the film teaches us, whatever you do, don’t notarize any illicit radium shipments.

One word of caution: Since this film is public domain, poor copies abound. The DVD I rented from Netflix looks like it was copied from VHS. Alas, there’s a better version streaming on Amazon Prime.