Monday, November 28, 2016

November Quick Picks and Pans




In a Lonely Place (1950) Director Nicholas Ray’s mystery/romance is an unflinching, emotionally draining experience, punctuated by exceptional performances from Gloria Grahame and Humphrey Bogart. Bogart plays Dixon Steele, a screenwriter with a volatile temper who’s accused of killing a hat check girl from a restaurant. While he remains under the watchful eye of a former army buddy turned police investigator, he and his neighbor Laurel (Gloria Grahame) fall in love. The question remains, however: did he or didn’t he? Although In a Lonely Place has some distinctly noir-ish elements, it’s not quite a noir – more of a character study with a dash of mystery thrown in the mix. Grahame is captivating as a vulnerable woman reluctant to jump into a new relationship, but her character doesn’t quite fit in the mold of a femme fatale. Bogie is also excellent, in one of his most unlikeable and challenging roles as the verbally and physically abusive Steele.

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


Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) “This is my happening and it freaks me out,” proclaims music producer Ronnie “Z-Man” Barzell (John Lazar), an apt description for this unlikely collaboration between director Russ Meyer and screenwriter Roger Ebert (yes, that Roger Ebert). It’s an indescribable, garish candy-hued confection about a girl group, The Carrie Nations (played by Dolly Read, Cynthia Myers and Marcia McBroom), and how the members are corrupted by the L.A. party scene. I won’t bother going into the details of the plot, since they’re largely irrelevant. It’s best to just take everything in, like a guest at Z-Man’s party.

With its abundance of memorable lines and infectious songs, I agree with Ebert’s commentary that Beyond the Valley of the Dolls could have been as big a phenomenon as The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Propriety dictates that I provide a star rating for this movie, but any objective evaluation seems to come up short. I’m not sure why it took so long to see this, but I’m glad I finally took the trip. Unlike 99 percent of everything else out there, I can honestly assert there’s nothing else like it. Far out, man!

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


The Snake Woman (1961) An interesting premise that fails to deliver on its lurid potential, The Snake Woman suffers from too much restraint. Susan Travers is fetching as Atheris, a half-human/half-serpent hybrid, but has far too little screen time, and doesn’t do much more than stand around. John McCarthy co-stars as Charles Prentice, a rather dim inspector from Scotland Yard who attracts her with his flute (this sentence has more innuendo than the whole movie). The film could have gone on so many psycho-sexual tangents, but director Sidney J. Furie and writer Orville H. Hampton chose to play it safe. Rather than displaying some sympathy for Atheris, the film sides with her detractors. A similar concept was explored, much more effectively, by Hammer’s The Reptile. My advice: watch that one instead, and skip this movie.

Rating: **. Available on DVD (as part of the Timeless Horror – Movies 4 You collection) and Amazon Instant Video



Amazon Women on the Moon (1987) This hodge-podge of comedy sketches (similar to Kentucky Fried Movie) from John Landis, Joe Dante and several other directors misses more frequently than hits. There are a few amusing skits, including Ed Begley Jr. as a not-so-invisible man, a parody of Ripley’s Believe it or Not, and a Siskel & Ebert style review of someone’s life. Unfortunately, too many segments go on for far too long (especially a funeral sketch), often with very little payoff. It’s good for a few laughs if you know what you’re getting into, but I suspect most viewers will be skipping forward.


Rating: **. Available on DVD

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

THX 1138




(1971) Directed by George Lucas; Written by George Lucas and Walter Murch; Based on a script by Matthew Robbins and Walter Murch; Starring: Robert Duvall, Donald Pleasence, Don Pedro Colley and Maggie McOmie; Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: ***½

“…It was designed really to be an experience, a metaphor about the way we lived in the early ‘60s; about consumerism, about conformity, disintegration of emotions, about trying to make everything perfect in a way that was nightmarish.” – George Lucas

Note: The film version used for this review was the 2004 “director’s cut” edition, which incorporated several computer-enhanced shots, similar to Lucas’ controversial treatment of the original Star Wars trilogy. How does it look? It’s always a double-edged sword when you tamper with a film’s visuals. At worst, it looks distracting (think the CGI Jabba the Hutt added to Star Wars Episode IV), but at best, a few shots arguably provide a bit of extra scope. Nice, but unnecessary.


Depending on your age and point of view, George Lucas is alternately seen as the savior or destroyer of modern cinema. Some individuals, especially those from my generation, have accused Mr. Lucas of ruining their precious childhood with his tinkering of the Star Wars canon, or some such nonsense (nope, my fond childhood memories are quite intact, thank you very much). These same filmgoers have lost sight of the fact that he once represented a bold wave of young filmmakers (including Coppola, Carpenter and De Palma) who transformed the cinematic landscape forever. These filmmakers emerged on the scene in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s with an independent perspective, eschewing the tired Hollywood studio system, while paying homage* to some of the time-honored conventions. This vital period is exemplified by THX 1138, ** George Lucas’ feature film debut from Francis Coppola’s Zoetrope Studios, which combines experimental elements with a hero’s narrative.

* While not mentioned by Lucas, the downward crawl of the credits at the beginning of the film recalls a similar credits sequence in 1955’s Kiss Me Deadly.

** Fun fact: In case you were wondering, the THX audio/video system, also pioneered by Lucasfilm, is not named after the eponymous film, but the company’s sound engineer, Tomlinson Holman. Coincidence or not?


THX 1138 starts off on an oddly ironic and optimistic note, with a pastiche of clips from old Buck Rogers serials, depicting the type of escapist fare Lucas would come to be known for. As the last image vanishes, we are suddenly thrust into a bleak subterranean dystopia,* populated by a homogenized society.** The optimistic “gee whiz” future of Buck Rogers is contrasted with the pessimistic controlled reality where individuals cease to matter. In his DVD commentary, Lucas compared the nominal hero of his film to the Saturday matinee protagonist, as someone who became a hero because he made the conscious decision to do something about his situation.   

* Fun fact: Lucas partially filmed his dystopian epic in the then-unfinished BART tunnels in the San Francisco bay area.

** Another fun fact: Members of the Synanon drug rehab group were recruited as extras for the film because of their shaved heads.


Robert Duvall stars as the title character, a cog in the machinery of the totalitarian society depicted in the film. He builds automated police officers (authority figures that do not question the morality or imperatives of their duties) by day, and spends his evenings on a steady diet of inane television programming and sedatives. He engages in illegal sexual activity with his roommate LUH 3417 (Maggie McOmie), while grappling with his disintegrating psyche. He confesses his transgressions and eroding emotional state to an automated therapy booth. The computer voice, revealed to be nothing more than a tape recording, interjects periodically with acknowledgements and empty platitudes. Duvall and McOmie are excellent as the doomed, emotionally repressed lovers.


Donald Pleasence is also great as the morally ambiguous SEN 5241.* He finagles his way into THX’s life by manipulating the system to his advantage. He arranges to have LUH pushed out, so he can become THX’s new roommate. In a film that’s mostly downbeat, the bright spot is Don Pedro Colley as SRT, a hologram who somehow escaped the system and has become a rogue intelligence. He provides a surreal touch, prefiguring the concept of avatars and virtual environments by many years.

* Another fun fact: According to Lucas, SEN’s rhetoric-filled dialogue was derived, in part, from Richard Nixon speeches.


For all of its brilliance, Lucas’ experimental film falters in the awkward third act, with a protracted chase scene. THX’s escape in a high-powered car, pursued by automated motorcycle cops, gives way to Lucas’ long-held fascination (some might say fetish) with depictions of speed, chases and automobiles. But why are the cars there in the first place, when it’s clearly established the society in THX 1138 is essentially classless, and there’s a public transit system? Who own the cars, and how would THX, a worker drone, know how to drive? Of course, if Lucas had satisfying answers to these questions, it would obviate the logic of a car chase scene, and we wouldn’t have a third act. One interesting concept that prevails, however, is that police officers can’t exceed a specific budget when apprehending THX (Lucas’ acknowledged dig at the film industry).

* Lucas described his film as having three distinct parts: “conventional,” “abstract,” and “action.”


It’s no surprise that THX 1138 failed to be a commercial success, almost finishing American Zoetrope, and nearly ending the career of its fledgling director. Lucas went in a more marketable, but no less personal direction with his next feature, American Graffiti, and never seemed to look back. But for those who only associate him with more crowd-pleasing, escapist fare, THX 1138 seems positively revolutionary. Its late ‘60s response to conformity is still relevant today. As society has become increasingly estranged from itself, and we continue to immerse ourselves in our petty electronic distractions and blind consumerism, Lucas’ vision is all too prescient. Two-thirds brilliant, one-third tedious, THX 1138 demonstrates we didn’t have long to wait before his science fiction world became a reality.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Double Take: Invaders from Mars




Invaders from Mars (1953) Directed by: William Cameron Menzies; Written by Richard Blake; Starring: Helena Carter, Arthur Franz, Jimmy Hunt, Leif Erickson and Hillary Brooke

Available on DVD

Rating: ****





Invaders from Mars (1986) Directed by: Tobe Hooper; Written by Dan O’Bannon and Don Jakoby; Based on the original 1953 screenplay by Richard Blake; Starring: Karen Black, Hunter Carson, Timothy Bottoms, Laraine Newman, James Karen, Louise Fletcher and Bud Cort

Available on Blu-ray and DVD

Rating: **



“If you know my dad, there isn’t anybody like him, not anybody. But today he acted like somebody I never saw before.” – David MacLean (Jimmy Hunt)



“I thought it was a picture well worth remaking because of…what I saw…the potential of what could be brought to a contemporary audience.” – Tobe Hooper




Note: Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, and this post is no exception. About the same time I was pondering a comparison of two versions of Invaders from Mars, another writer (Sarah Jane @FookThis) on Twitter discussed a similar exploration. I was a bit apprehensive to cover the same ground, but she encouraged me to go forth with my take. I similarly encourage you to check out her film musings on Letterboxd.




Science Fiction is an ideal forum to address the sort of subjects that would be unsavory in some other, more “conventional” genres. Even in the darkest of times, clever writers and filmmakers have managed to inject subversive elements in their work, while appearing to produce “escapist” fare for the masses. We can address the pink pachyderm in the room head on, confront our demons and shake hands with our deepest fears. One such example is 1953’s Invaders from Mars, which blended elements from a child’s darkest nightmares into a tale of Cold War paranoia. Three decades later, Tobe Hooper saw fit to grace the world with his updated interpretation of one of the defining sci-fi films of the 1950s. How did his version fare? Let’s take a look…





Social Relevance



The original Invaders from Mars could be seen as a commentary on ‘50s “gee whiz” optimism (yes, the main character even exclaims “gee whiz.”) replaced by Cold War cynicism. The film falls in a sweet spot, following The Thing from Another World by a couple of years, and pre-dating Jack Finney’s novel Invasion of the Body Snatchers by the same time span. Director/production designer William Cameron Menzies and crew obliged the prevailing xenophobia and paranoia of the time, with alien invaders who would stop at nothing to undermine the pillars of American society. One boy wakes up to discover his family, friends and neighbors aren’t who they appear to be. He spends the rest of the film trying to convince anyone who will listen that the residents of his town are being manipulated by Martians to carry out their diabolical (albeit vague) scheme for world domination. The whole message is diluted in Hooper’s version, as the story services the effects, not the other way around. There’s so much that could have been said, in a version re-tooled for the Reagan years. Instead, Hopper just seems to be mimicking key scenes from the original film, creating a pale imitation.



Verdict: Original





Cinematography/Art Design



Menzies’ film is a textbook example of doing more with less. What the filmmakers might have lacked in funds, they compensate with ingenuity. The distorted camera angles and minimalist sets recall German expressionism, especially in the scene with David (Jimmy Hunt) in the police station. The alien spacecraft interiors also have a simple, understated design. Realism takes a back seat to tone, as we’re immersed in a boy’s nightmare. By contrast, Leslie Dilley’s spacecraft sets look like a pale imitation of H.R. Giger’s biomechanical designs for Alien.



Verdict: Original




Effects



In the 1953 version, the creature effects were quaint at best (some might say cheesy). The Martian invaders were human-like mutants, clad from head to toe in green footie pajamas, complete with zipper up the back. Their leader appears as a head with tentacles, encased in a glass globe, a representation of “mankind developed to its ultimate intelligence.”  




One gets the feeling Hooper and his team tried to one-up the original with spectacle at every step, from the obnoxious title sequence to the overdone spaceship interior. In addition to Dilley, Hooper’s team included other talented individuals, including John Dykstra and Stan Winston. With all due respect to Winston and his brilliant achievements in creature effects, the Martians seem borderline cute. With their giant mouths and awkward, rubbery gait, the Martian guards recall something from Joe Dante’s Explorers. I have to give Winston credit where it’s due, however, for his interesting re-interpretation of the Martian leader, which emerges from a shaft like a giant birth canal.

* If you must watch the remake, look out for a neat little Easter egg in the scene where David and Linda escape into the school boiler room. Watch for a pile of Christmas ornaments, including a globe housing the Martian leader from the original film.




Verdict: Tie





Performances



Jimmy Hunt does an admirable job as David MacLean (he has a cameo as a cop in the remake), who keeps a cool head in the face of adversity. His father (Leif Erickson) undergoes a radical mood swing as he succumbs to Martian mind control. His rapid mood shift is positively frightening. Helena Carter is also very good as Dr. Pat Blake, David’s only ally in the fight against extra-terrestrial conquest.




Hooper assembled a good cast of veteran character actors for the remake, but most of their talent is wasted. In contrast to Erickson’s scary transformation, Timothy Bottoms as David’s father doesn’t seem particularly threatening, just eccentric. As a school nurse who’s prone to histrionics, Karen Black’s character is a step down from Carter’s Dr. Blake (“You’re not just a crazy child, are you?”). Louise Fletcher seems to be going through the motions in the usual thankless villainess role we’ve grown to associate with her. As David, Hunter Carson (Black’s real-life son) doesn’t fare any better than the rest of the ensemble. His acting ranges from blank expressions to flailing his arms about and shouting hysterically.



Verdict: Original





Overall Effectiveness



Both films take a different approach with regard to introducing the invaders. The original prefers a slow build (we don’t see the alien invaders or their lair until two-thirds of the way in), but that time isn’t wasted. The filmmakers wisely chose to leave it to the audience to speculate what was hidden underneath the sand dune concealing the Martian ship. A haunting chorus accompanies the scenes in which people are sucked into the ground. The tension is palpable as David wonders who to trust, and an atmosphere of overwhelming paranoia mounts. In the remake, things are taken at face value. Possibly a result of pandering to pressure from Cannon Films, or a sign of the diminishing attention span of filmgoers, Hooper doesn’t waste much time before we catch a glimpse of the alien spacecraft interior and its weird inhabitants.



Verdict: Original





In what has become an all too common trend in remakes, what worked in the original film is somehow lost in translation. The 1986 version follows the same recipe and uses the same ingredients, but the recipe ends up tasting wrong. The “bigger means better” approach recalls a line from Jeff Goldblum’s Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, who lamented “…they didn’t stop to think if they should.” Hooper somehow manages to screw up everything that worked in Menzies’ original. Thanks to dodgy acting and an ill-advised freeze frame, even the ending lacks the bite of the 1953 film. While the 1986 film is a missed opportunity, the alien invasion trope is always in style. Another 30 years have elapsed since the previous attempt, and the story is ripe for another remake, re-tooled for the current, uncertain climate.